NECTA 2017: Policy Battles Hurt Cable Due to ‘Legacy Baggage’

Net neutrality warnings resonate more because of perception problems, panelists say
NECTA panel pic web.jpg

Newport, R.I. -- Executives at top cable operators Comcast and Charter Communications said policy battles, such as over net neutrality, hurt the cable industry’s efforts to improve its reputation with consumers – partly because of “legacy baggage as an industry.”

Speaking the day after Facebook, Google, Twitter and many other tech companies participated in a “day of action” supporting net neutrality policies governing cable companies and other internet service providers, Comcast senior executive VP David Cohen said the “public policy battles that we face are constantly undermining our attempt to be able to tell our story to the consumer.”

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On the same panel opening the New England Cable & Telecommunications Association convention here, Michael Powell, president of NCTA-the Internet and Television Association, said that because consumers don’t have good feelings about cable companies, they are more likely to believe warnings that ISPs might deliberately take actions to, say, slow down the traffic that goes to sites that don’t pay extra for priority service.

Cable has invested in increasing broadband speeds, Powell said, but rich and powerful tech companies are following a playbook that would see regulations handicap rivals such as ISPs while leaving themselves uncovered by similar rules.

Powell said Twitter blocked an AT&T public-policy blog that supported an open Internet but opposed regulating ISPs similar to common-carrier phone companies under Title II of the Communications Act. “Yet we are the greatest threat,” he said, in a sarcastic sense.

READ MORE: AT&T has trouble tweeting internet action day blog

Tom Adams, executive VP of field operations at Charter, said cable has been making gains overcoming that “legacy baggage as an industry.” He said “you don’t do it overnight, you do it one customer at a time,” with fairly priced products that work every time and by treating customers well. “I think if we do that, one by one we’re going to change this perception and it’s going to trickle down to J.D. Power [ratings] and all these things, but it’s going to take time.”

Adams also said devices working off the internet in homes rely on Wifi, and often how consumers use Wifi is with their inexpensive routers, perhaps purchased years ago and not intended to work with 60 megabits per second or more of capacity. Cable needs “to figure out how do we own that space, that wireless space in the home,” which will be hard to resolve as long as consumers own their own routers as opposed to renting them from the cable company.

READ MORE: NCTA says net neutrality and Title II are not remotely the same

Panelists also said cyber security is a serious threat to cable and to other industries, such as the nation's power grid. Adams said demonstrating strong cyber security was another opportunity for cable to take leadership.

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CNBC senior analyst Ron Insana moderated the panel as he has done for more than 20 years at this regional convention of cable companies.