2015: Will Cable’s Mega-Merger Create Home Automation’s Biggest Brother?

Unfinished business from last year: The U.S. government’s approval of the proposed merger between Comcast and Time-Warner.

By Cliff Roth

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Video/Imaging DesignWire
(1/1/2015 8:00:39 AM)

As 2015 begins, one important item of unfinished business from last year is the U.S. government’s approval, or dis-allowance, of the proposed merger between Comcast and Time-Warner.

Criticism of the proposed merger of Comcast and Time-Warner has mainly revolved around monopoly pricing and concentration of ownership in TV programming. Although hardly the first thing that comes to mind, there is perhaps a darker, more nefarious threat that arises from this merger: concentration of data. And though cable systems for years have had the ability to track, moment by moment, what we are watching via set-top box technology, this newest threat poses a far greater intrusion into our personal lives, through the newest and potentially most lucrative offering the cable-TV industry has ever marketed: Home security and home automation.

The Snowden NSA revelations have sensitized the American public to the bulk collection of telephone data, as well as Internet data, game apps data, and perhaps cell phone location data. Those data are mere tidbits when compared with the mother lode of potential data that becomes available from home security and automation systems.

Combining Comcast’s estimated 22-million subscribers and Time-Warner’s 13-million, the combined company would have presence in 35-million homes, with the next nearest cable-TV “competitor” having merely 5-million subscribers.

U.S. cable-TV market share before and after proposed merger.

U.S. cable-TV market share before and after proposed merger.

Cable companies can already keep track of what people watch, and have Internet and phone traffic flowing through them. Home Automation is the newest service they’re promoting.

Home Automation and Control’s opportunity for privacy invasion was spotlighted last year when the  Nest thermostat company was acquired by Google.

But as if the thermostat data isn’t creepy enough, consider the cameras. Most modern home security, control and automation systems include one or more cameras strategically placed around the home so you can check in anytime you want from a remote location. Typically you’d do this when you’re away, especially if you receive a security alert that there might be an intruder. You can view the cameras on your laptop or tablet or smartphone. Of course in theory you are the only one who can tune in the camera via the Internet, via password protection and additional security measures.

Of course there are other cameras in the home, including those built into laptops and tablets, and some models of TVs have cameras intended for videoconferencing with grandma, but presumably consumers can turn all these cameras off by turning off the device. The security cameras are different, and they are under the control of the security/home automation system.

There are other paths to providing home automation without using the cable-TV company, but unless you want to install it yourself, the cable companies have a built-in advantage in this market because we’re already comfortable and familiar with having the “cable guy” — or gal — come into our homes, including our bedrooms, and install things for us. That’s a high level of trust.

Stopping this proposed merger will hardly block the exploitation of the vast data that home automation makes accessible. You can’t stop progress, and lights that turn on automatically for us are inevitable. But if all this data is going to exist, having it divided between two already humongous companies is probably better than putting all these eggs into a single Orwellian basket.

Cliff Roth is editor of Video/Imaging DesignWire, a web site focused on video and imaging technology.



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