News

Roberts: Online Is 'Friend, Not Foe’

4/04/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts said that cable programming online could be a boon for distributors who are smart enough to figure out how to monetize it.

“I think it’s a friend, not a foe,” Roberts said of video-streamed cable programming at the opening general session of The Cable Show ’09 here Wednesday. “It is powering our broadband business, one of the fastest-growing parts of Comcast. For programmers, it’s a new opportunity to try to monetize in this horrific advertising environment.”

Online video has been a bone of contention with several operators — especially Time Warner Cable — who have voiced concern about the growing amount of programming that is available online for free. The phenomenon, called “cord-cutting,” has been seen as a major threat to the cable industry.

Other content providers have proposed a compromise — charging a fee for online content or making it a part of a regular cable subscription. Fellow panelist Suddenlink Communications CEO Jerry Kent said that online video, especially bandwidth intensive high-definition video, could be good for operators who sell high-speed Internet connections. One suggestion from Kent: “Maybe something where a paying customer can get video anytime, anywhere on any device.”

But Kent added that also creates some collateral issues. For instance, he asked, what about second homes, hotel rooms, dormitories and other areas where a cable customer may have access to the Internet and therefore, access to programming?

Roberts said that already the cable industry has developed some solutions — more and more programming is finding its way on demand, for instance — and others will develop over time.

“This is a great opportunity for us to find an additional revenue stream,” Roberts said, adding that the trick will be to provide a service “in a way that adds value, not destroys value.”

Roberts said that besides online, the cable industry is once again focused on wireless, this time through the Clearwire partnership between Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Bright House Networks, Google, Intel and Sprint. But that partnership, which was formed to build a nationwide fourth-generation WiMax network, has hit some snags. Back in February, former Clearwire CEO Ben Wolff said the network may take longer to build and cost more than originally expected.

Roberts said that wireless has always been a “conundrum” for the cable industry, but added that this time around, the partners are looking ahead.

Many new wireless applications are requiring an increasing amount of bandwidth, said Roberts, capacity that can only be provided by a WiMax network. Clearwire chairman Craig McCaw said that his approach is different than some other past, and failed, cable wireless consortiums.

“What we’re trying to do is different, we want jump to where we think the market is going rather than where it is today,” said McCaw.

But Kent — who has about 1.2 million subscribers with Suddenlink, compared with Comcast’s 24 million — said that he is taking a wait-and-see attitude with wireless. And the way technology is changing, he may just continue to wait.

Kent pointed to eBay’s Internet phone product, Skype, and Google’s moves to create a first-generation Internet phone that rivals Apple’s iPhone.

“If Google and Skype can crack the code, I don’t know why I would need wireless,” Kent said.

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