Friday, March 18, 2016

A cord cutter's March Madness trepidation

It’s March Madness once again, and yes, this week we’re talking about the traditional March Madness of college basketball, not our current round of high-stakes  elections.  For this cord cutter who ditched cable just more than a year ago, this tournament season brings some added anxiety.

Last year's tournament did not end so well if you were a Sling TV user relying on the new video  service for your live TV sports connection.  In its first big test, Sling TV buckled under the strain leaving many viewers unable to watch the semi-final games between Duke/Michigan State and Wisconsin/Kentucky.  It was an inauspicious start for the first major streaming service to offer live sports via ESPN and channels like the TBS and TNTa without also having a traditional cable hookup.

Making matters worse, this wasn't the only high profile failure of SlingTV suffered in those early days.  Season premiers of AMCs “The Walking Dead” and HBO’s “Game of Thrones” also suffered outages.

Like many people, these days I watch most of my TV on demand and watch relatively little “appointment TV” – meaning TV based on someone else’s schedule.  But, when it comes to things like live sports or season premiers of the most popular TV shows, the things that will be the hot topics around the water cooler the next day, appointment TV is critical, and those appointments need to be kept.

These high usage events hit right at the biggest challenge of streaming live TV.  Reliability.

In all honesty, after SlingTV’s early failures I probably would have dropped the service if I hadn't been getting it for free due to being a part of its “reviewers program”.   But then, I am reminded of an experience I had many years ago with another new technology.

Everyone knows the Verizon Wireless commercials featuring the “Can you hear me now?” guy.  Well, I had a similar job for a few days way back in 1999.  While working at Nextel Communications during their testing of their first internet capable wireless phone, I got to drive around the Washington, DC area stopping at random places to test whether or not the phone could be accurately located by the Internet enabled mapping software.

In those early days, even after the service went live, it wasn't very good.  In fact, it was pretty terrible.  At one point I distinctly remember calling into the office and being asked if I had stopped on the side of the Washington Beltway because that's where their map said I was located.  I was at least a quarter mile away.

The point being that with new technology, the early days are often very, very bumpy.  Early adopters have to put up with a lot.  They have to persevere just as much as those rolling out the new service or devise.  If they didn't,  there would be no market for the new services and  little technological advancement.

It would be hard for many people today to imagine not having their smartphone with mapping
software that not only accurately pinpoints where they are, but where the nearest coffee shop is located, tells them how bad the traffic is on their route home, or even helps the. Make sure their kids are where they say they are at any given time.

While it took years for wireless internet service to reach critical mass, it did happen.  Comparatively speaking, Sling TV has improved dramatically from its earliest days just one year ago.  They haven't had any embarrassing outages for quite some time.  They've added a number of new channels and released a new more user friendly interface.  Also, the price point of just $20 per month can't be beat.

Importantly, as a precursor for the rest of the month they seemed to get through last week's series of conference championships without a hitch.

Still, this is March Madness.  This is important!

The rapidly growing community of cord cutters has its fingers crossed.  If Sling TV gets through this month unscathed, that will be a huge hurdle for people looking leave traditional pay TV behind.

This post first appeared in this week's Herald Weekly at

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