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Q&A

Innovator of Net Calling Sees Video Set for Change

April 15, 2006|James S. Granelli | Times Staff Writer

In London on business last August, Jeff Pulver opened his laptop in his hotel room one night and tuned in to his local Long Island pay television stations with the help of a device called Slingbox.

Just as he could at home, he began surfing through several hundred stations to see what was on -- at least until his wife called to tell him to stop changing the channels.

The Internet's assault on the broadcasting industry is just beginning, and Pulver is out front to help lead the charge.

A decade ago, he launched Voice on the Net, known as VON, and later co-founded popular Internet telephony company Vonage, a name derived from the Age of Voice on the Net. The idea was to shake up the entrenched telephone industry, an effort that has largely succeeded, he said.

"When I coined VON, I intended it to mean voice and video on the Net, but voice technology was ready first, so just that name stuck," he said in an interview at a VON conference he sponsored last month in San Jose.

Unlike 10 years ago, though, he has plenty of people who are helping to change the way entertainment is brought into the home -- or on the road.

Starz Entertainment Group, through its Vongo service, is among several companies delivering thousands of movies on demand to Internet users. Walt Disney Co.'s ABC television network will offer some of its most popular shows, such as "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost," free on the Internet in a two-month trial. Time Warner Inc. recently released a trove of older, less-watched television series, such as "Welcome Back, Kotter," through its AOL subsidiary for free viewing over the Internet. AOL's broadcast of the Live 8 concerts last summer, Pulver said, proved that the Internet was ready to handle live shows.

Yankee Group calls the technology "broadband TV." At a San Diego conference in February, Yankee researchers said the move to the Internet has been spurred by consumers' growing demand to pick the time and the place to watch what they want.

Pulver discussed the looming changes for broadcasting.

Question: Why do you want to change VON's focus to video?

Answer: The last 10 years have been really exciting. Some people have been able to find ways to disrupt the telecom industry. The next wave of disruption I see is going to be the broadcasting industry. It's really hard to ignore the fact that the Internet has become a medium that absolutely will redefine the way we communicate, and can now come in as a substitute or replacement for broadcast.

Q: The nation's telephone companies are starting to offer pay TV. What will that do to broadband television?

A: The one thing going against the telcos is that as a society, we're changing our viewing habits. Imagine if 40 years ago, the only way you could listen to your favorite song was on the radio and no one ever sold music. I'm really not a fan of having [Verizon Communications Inc. Chairman] Ivan Seidenberg or anyone else choose for me what cable channels I can watch. I like the idea of having the freedom to choose any content provider anywhere in the world.

Q: Is the quality there yet?

A: The Internet is good enough now to use as an alternative way to watch television. Ten years from now, I'm guessing that only 30% to 35% of the time will people be having a shared common experience watching something while it's live, whether it's the Oscars or the Super Bowl or, God forbid, some natural disaster. We're becoming a time-shifting, place-shifting society. If there's a television series you like, the broadcasters will help you schedule it. You could watch it according to them, or you could go to some place on the Internet and download it now for viewing when it's convenient for you.

Q: Where does that leave cable and satellite television?

A: Our reliance on cable is going to be a lot different than where it is today. A whole generation of people are growing up broadband; they're growing up TiVo. Kids 8 or 9 years old just assume that functionality, and when they get to be 18 years old, that's part of their life.

Imagine if you're Warner studio, you could test market a film to 50,000 people and [get] instantaneous feedback. That's clever, that's cool and you can do that now.

Q: Skype Technologies and Vonage, which offer calls over the Internet, have challenged traditional voice service. Whom do you see as major players in video?

A: I think that it's ultimately going to be the individual. I'm building a studio. A few years ago, it would have cost a million dollars. I have high-definition cameras, HD equipment, I have everything HD, and I'm probably doing it for under $100,000. As this technology continues to improve and as the software becomes more available to the masses, we're really talking about a sea change here where anybody can be a TV studio; anybody can be a mogul.

Q: What will the landscape look like in five years, in 10 years?

A: Broadcasting, within five years, will be totally disrupted. It will be on its head. The Internet becomes incredibly valuable to the way we communicate as a society. I do look for movie premieres and TV shows premiering on the Internet. I'm even looking for people having commercial-like "American Idol" franchises on the Net. Ten years ago, I didn't think anyone could be disrupting Hollywood, disrupting broadcasting. We are now because the quality and the experience are good enough to disrupt. It's one of the best times to be around and just watch and experience the change.

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