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The Digital Divide

Generally the digital divide refers to the gap between those with access to information and digital content (Internet access, digital media, etc) and those without. That’s not how I’m using it here, though. There is an increasing gap in the way people think of the creation and distribution of digital content.

I’m at the Cable Show in Vegas all week. The annual Cable-fest brings together folks from across the industry to talk about everything from next generation interactive applications developed on the OCAP standard and the latest programming options for cable systems to developments in network management and policy issues affecting the industry.

I have found it interesting how much of day one brought up the same issues again and again. Digital rights management; the role for user generated content in promoting adoption of wireless technologies and broadband adoption; and the challenges of distribution of content over different platforms (to name a few) are challenges not for anyone who uses traditional media platforms to carry a message.

Oswin Eleonora, Senior Vice President for LogicaCMG Telecommunications made perhaps the best point I have ever heard at one of these conferences. He said, and I am paraphrasing because I didn’t have a recorder but was taking notes furiously, there is a huge difference between entertainment and communications. Most cable companies think of these technologies as entertainment driven.

The entertainment model assumes the user will be consuming the material in a sender/receiver model. The decisions they make regarding what to deliver over their networks (be it mobile or landline) are based on the idea that people come to a site or content channel, and consume what they are given.

The reality is all of these models are becoming communications media. People are using the Internet, wireless services, etc to communicate with one another – whether that is in the form of an e-mail, cell call, or video posted to YouTube.

Much of the discussion at the iHollywood Mobile Bootcamp was about the challenges faced in delivering existing programming to a small screen. Oswin pointed out that the European model is as much about allowing users to upload content as opposed to simply consuming what the provider decides to dole out. It’s a fundamental difference and part of the reason for greater consumption of these services overseas.

A fascinating statistic to support that idea was quoted, attributed to Michael Dell’s CES Keynote – YouTube consumes as much bandwidth today as the entire Internet consumed in 2000. That is a fascinating stat. That is a fundamental difference in how we use the Internet today.

The amount of content that is being generated – and consumed – by entities outside the normal content distribution channels is growing. Clinging to outmoded ideas that people want to be talked to, and don’t want to say anything themselves, is simply not going to work.

On of the other panelists suggested that digital rights management, and having to purchase content on a per platform basis was the biggest hurdle facing media distribution services. I’d suggest he’s wrong. having to grapple with a shifting media environment – one that sees many of your consumers becoming producers – is the biggest hurdle.

The same speaker went on to say that there is little reason to change the sender/receiver model because there are few instances you can point to where interactive media has really demonstrated its viability (his example was American Idol). It is really sort of a misguided notion. Arguing that the model is sound because there have been few successful models to prove otherwise is, historically, a specious argument.

When people who built horse drawn carriages heard about the experimentation with something called an automobile, they likely felt the same. “Well sure,” they must have said, “but there have been so few successful examples of a person getting from point A to point B with a motor car. The belief that these will someday replace carriages is simply wrong.”

The media companies need to understand that there is a new way coming. They’ll need to empower and enable it, or be made obsolete by it.

Written by Michael Turk