News

Letter to the Editor

10/31/1999 7:00 PM Eastern

Democracy Via TV and Set-Top

To the Editor:

A. Michael Noll's piece in your Oct. 25 issue,"The Television/Computer Convergence Myth," employs a weak argument to attack amistaken premise.

Professor Noll seeks to debunk the notion that Internetaccess via the TV set is a viable proposition. He argues that the mere fact that computermonitors and television sets both employ cathode-ray tubes to display visual images"does not mean television and computers are converging into a single appliance in ourhomes."

Moreover, he says, "a couple of decades ago,"Knight Ridder tried to market "an electronic database containing all sorts ofinformation," delivered through the TV set, and "the service bombed." This,he says, demonstrates that Internet access via the TV is "doomed to fail."

The professor misses the point. First, Internet access viathe TV set isn't about "convergence" of the computer and the televisioninto one appliance; it's about using the TV -- a different, cheaper and far simplerappliance than the computer -- to access the Internet.

Many people do not own home computers because of theircostliness. Many others -- particularly seniors -- don't own them because they fearthat they will be unable to figure out how to use them.

This might seem to the casual observer to put people whoeither find themselves (or put themselves) in these categories out of reach of theInternet's benefits. Yet there is no inherent technological reason why the Internetshould only be accessed using an appliance that is also capable of word processing,spreadsheet management and all sorts of other memory-hungry functions requiring largeamounts of computing capacity.

In fact, the assumption that a computer is indispensable toInternet access probably is the only thing standing between the Internet as it is todayand it becoming a truly universal medium. The TV set (and the set-top box) can democratizethe net.

Almost all U.S. households already own at least one TV set,and both digital and advanced-analog cable systems can easily be equipped with smarttechnology at the headend to provide bidirectional Internet capability through the samekind of set-top box now supplied with conventional cable service.

The scale economics inherent in cable architecture allowthis to be done cheaply and point the way to provision of a service that can generaterevenue from households that previously either have not subscribed to cable or not boughta PC.

There is much to be said for a new means of enticing"cable resisters" to hook up, and of incenting the millions of cable householdsthat do not own computers to voluntarily increase their monthly cable expenditures, ifonly by a few dollars.

Not incidentally, of course, a very inexpensive means ofaccessing the Internet also could go a very long way toward closing the "digitaldivide" that threatens to bar minorities and the poor from full participation in theinformation age.

As for Professor Noll's contention that TV-basedInternet access is doomed to fail, consider this: Just one decade ago (OK, eight yearsago), Columbia University's Media Studies Journal invited Professor Noll tocomment on what media might look like in the year 2000.

He responded by scoffing at "utopian" predictions"about the [alleged] coming growth of information services for the home." Heoffered his own prediction that notwithstanding the failure of home information services(and other such schemes) in the past, the advocates of technology will stubbornly persistin advocating their deployment. "Some things never change," he grumped.

Actually, it seems to be Professor Noll's views thatnever change. He might consider not only writing for Multichannel News, but readingit, as well.

James P. Mooney
Principal
JLM Partners Inc.,
(Represents WorldGate Communications Inc.,
A provider of Internet service through the TV)

September