Titanic battle looms in battle for broadband boom supremacy

Following NTL's attempt to strike a multi-million pound deal with Virgin Mobile, Ian Quinn reports on why media owners are excited by the developing triple-play market.

Like many might say of Virgin trains, Sir Richard Branson has arrived late as a potential broadcast star, but his emergence as an interested player adds more than a little colour to the battle for supremacy in the UK's ongoing media "triple-play" revolution.

A string of heavyweight companies, including BSkyB, Microsoft, BT and possibly NTL and Virgin, are developing packages which will enable their customers to receive content via TV, the internet and mobile - all under one bill.

Virgin Mobile may have, at the time of writing, rebuffed an approach from NTL, but Branson is reportedly supportive of the idea. Last week the cable company lined up an £800m-plus offer for the brand, even as its long-awaited merger with Telewest awaits rubber-stamping by competition watchdogs. Virgin's board rejected the initial approach.

Rather than jettison the tycoon, NTL planned to give him a seat on the board and take on the Virgin name for the new merged entity. The appeal for the cable company is obvious: it will be able to offer a mobile service and, crucially, a new marketing image.

As far as NTL is concerned, analysts have interpreted the megabucks move as a bid to capitalise on the huge power of the Virgin brand while at the same time transform NTL's reputation as a company linked with poor customer service.

Sleeping giant

If Virgin does get on board, NTL, which is already the UK's leading broadband supplier, suddenly looks far less like the sleeping giant it has appeared to be over the past few years.

If they come together, the two companies could boast more than nine million customers and, having last week offered to upgrade all its customers for free to superfast 10mb broadband, NTL has well and truly woken up to the new age.

But its power play with Virgin is merely the latest move in a major scramble for territory as media owners, including a bunch of new but powerful players on the media scene, gear up to take advantage of a new technological era made possible by the incredible broadband boom.

The race to establish a so-called triple-play offering has become one of the biggest battlegrounds in the industry and has even forced titans like Microsoft and Sky to alter their business strategies.

For years little more than a fantastic theory, media convergence is fast becoming not just a reality but at the heart of companies' strategy in the battle for customers, applying equally to content and commercial deals on the back of it as it does to technology.

Guy Di Piazza, an analyst at Ernst & Young, believes the industry has entered the second phase of a technological revolution, which began during the internet boom of the late 90s.

"Between 1999 and 2001 there was a lot of hype about this sort of convergence of technology, but phase two seems to be a lot more concrete because this time they are following the money," he said.

"You just have to see the amount of money that's going into new media and digital. Just look at the advertising money that's going into online."

The land grab for territory lies behind the strategies of almost all the top UK media companies - from BSkyB, ITV , Channel 4 and NTL, as well as the BBC of course, on the broadcasting front, to a new wave of competition, led by the likes of Microsoft.

If it's not already broken, the old media model is clearly on the way out in the age of video on demand, time shifted viewing and high speed broadband.

For the soon to be merged cable operators, Virgin Mobile's possible arrival on the scene adds what could be a vital ingredient - marketing prowess. NTL may spend nearly £20m a year on direct marketing, but it has a notoriously bad reputation for customer relations.

One analyst said: "Whenever you mention the words 'customer service' and NTL in the same breath, people laugh." Outraged customers, who failed to see the funny side, famously set up their own website in protest- "NTL Hell", which the cable company now owns. In contrast, the debate over the performance of Virgin Rail has failed to derail Branson's reputation as a man with the Midas touch.

Exclusive content

Some believe any merger makes it far more likely that NTL will keep hold of Telewest's content arm, Flextech and if anything try to expand it, if the future for the company, rather than focusing entirely on technology, is likely to boil down to offering better and exclusive content.

Some predict, however, that any possible NTL/Virgin deal could take as long as two to three years to become fully functioning. That is not to mention the millions needed to invest in customer relations and marketing, so rival Sky will have time to capitalise on its own ambitious plans.

Sky is expected to launch a massive drive to dominate the triple play arena on the back of its purchase of Easynet, come next year. Its plans include the launch of high definition TV and broadband content via the internet and mobile.

If UK cable bosses are to repeat the experience of the United States, where cable is the dominant technology, they have huge ground to make up, not least in marketing, where Sky has spent big, and in customer relations where its friendly and helpful Scottish voices on the end of the phone are viewed as a prime asset.

As well as the imminent arrival of HDTV, Sky still has its Sky+ personal video recorder as a weapon, which it could yet give away to drive subscriptions.

As one analyst says: "People have underestimated Sky before and anyone who thinks they are going to sit back and let NTL steal a march on them has another thing coming."

However, time shifted viewing competition from the likes of the BBC's Media Player, due to launch next year, C4's rapidly expanding broadband presence and the cable companies' growing video on demand services are upping the ante.

And on the delivery front, digital subscriber line (DSL) hook ups to broadband represent 80% of connections to date in 2005, with the process of so-called local loop unbundling having been led by the likes of Homechoice, now a tempting target for Sky.

Jerome Buvat, managing consultant at Capgemini Telecom, Media and Entertainment, said: "In France, the arrival of local loop unbundlers led to a price decline of more than half in a year."

New entrants are set to include BT, which will launch its own TV over broadband proposition next year, under the brand name BT Nevis. BT may have a mountain to climb to catch up with cable and Sky from scratch but it aims to offer a vast amount of broadband content that doesn't necessarily need a PC connection.

"Ultimately, content will determine which delivery models succeed," says Andrew Walmsley, co-founder of digital agency i-Level.

Companies like BT and Microsoft, which is seeing its media centre product flying off the shelves, represent an entirely new beast for viewers. In the next few years, technology is expected to mean that delivery systems merge, so that households can finally receive all their content via one box.

The ground will shift hugely for those who have funded commercial television to date, and the new technology represents both a challenge and a threat.

Broadband penetration

With UK broadband penetration set to reach half of homes by 2010 and UK internet advertising spend predicted to rise above £1 billion in 2006, agencies are gearing up to get their clients involved in areas such as branded content and advertiser-run channels. Video ads over broadband are set to go into overdrive in 2006.

The chance to extend campaigns across TV, internet and mobile is a potentially powerful extension of advertising, yet viewers have more potential than ever before to skip them.

Broadcasters, on the other hand, are trying to spread themselves as widely as possible, which is why ITV has just paid £120m, with a further £55m possible to come, to get its hands on Friends Reunited.

Buying a piece of the future is the name of the game and with names like Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates and Richard Branson all vying for pole position, 2006 looks set to see the start of a titanic battle.

MILESTONES IN THE MEDIA REVOLUTION

- NTL announces in October 2005 an impending merger with Telewest in a deal which valued the two at £3.8bn. The move was seen as cable limbering up to be a serious contender in the next generation TV and communication stakes.

- BSkyB announces in October 2005 that it has bought broadband provider Easynet for £211m. It is seen as Sky's aggressive move to protect its position as the UK's dominant pay-TV platform against the threat of a revitalised cable sector in the wake of the NTL-Telewest merger and any future challenge from BT in the broadband field.

- Sky proclaims the revolutionary launch of high definition TV (HDTV) in 2006 and says a new version of Sky+, called Sky+160, will give viewers four times the storage capacity for programmes than on existing machines.

- Video Networks discloses last month (Nov) that it needs to raise at least £25m in capital to roll out coverage of its Homechoice service to 10 million homes in the UK next year (2006). At the time it had just 34,000 subscribers compared with nearly 8m Sky homes.

- In partnership with electronics giant Philips, BT revealed plans in October to break Sky's grip in late summer next year (2006) with a set top box of its own - incorporating its own PVR capable of delivering high definition TV (HDTV) plus catch-up TV making use of the seven-day public service window, a large range of movies, TV programme archive and music videos - and all available on demand, round-the-clock, without a mandatory subscription.

- The BT Philips partnership will also offer subscription and pay-per-view opportunities plus interactive and telephone services, representing a convergence of things only available up to now on separate devices. And it builds on a recently-announced alliance with Microsoft which will provide Microsoft TV IPTV Edition as the software platform for BT's TV-over-Broadband service.

- The Microsoft TV IPTV Edition is described as a complete end-to-end platform enabling end-to-end delivery of digital TV services that will offer consumer features such as music-sharing with other devices on the home network and remote DVR recording from web-connected PCs or mobile phones.

- ITV says last week (Dec 6) that it plans to buy Friends Reunited for an estimated £175m, adding the website operator to ITV.com and ITV Local, in a bid to strengthen its current online presence in a market where UK broadband penetration is set to reach 50% of homes by 2010 and Britain's internet ad spend is predicted to top £1bn next year (2006).

- At the same time it was confirmed that NTL, which is expected to complete the amalgamation with Telewest in June, has approached Virgin Mobile about an £810m merger which might pave the way for the mother-of-all battles for supremacy between cable and its Sky and BT rivals.

- A merged Virgin-NTL-Telewest would give the combined operation 3.3m television customers, more than 5m mobile phone users, 2.5m broadband internet customers, and 4.4m fixed-line telephone accounts.

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