WASHINGTON -In comments later downplayed by one cable-industry leader, Comcast Corp. president Brian Roberts used a dinner speech here Wednesday to urge deregulation of phone companies instead of reregulation of cable operators.
"We would like to suggest that instead of more talk about reversing the course and having regulatory parity between competitors, what should be talked about is deregulatory parity," Roberts said. "And that way we remain true to the bipartisan principles of the [Telecommunications Act of 1996].to find ways to deregulate established players like the phone companies or like the satellite companies and put them more competitive in broadband."
Roberts, in remarks to the Economic Club of Washington designed to showcase his company's advanced digital products, also said the regulators who reviewed America Online Inc.'s merger with Time Warner Inc. were correct to examine AOL's dominance of instant messaging.
"I said to a few folks, and some of them are in the room tonight, that really the problem is instant messaging," Roberts said. "If you have kids, you can't not have AOL.
"That's their chat line. If you want to have Microsoft Network and plug into their chat line, they won't allow it. So I think a lot of focus on that was merited. Whether they took enough action, I don't know," he said.
Roberts' comments about phone deregulation seemed to clash with the established position of the National Cable Television Association. The NCTA has said it is improper to amend the 1996 law to ease regulatory burdens on phone companies as proposed, for example, by House Commerce Committee chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) with regard to high-speed Internet access.
But NCTA president Robert Sachs said there was no daylight emerging between the trade group and Roberts.
"I think Brian was saying there is a regulatory maxim that it is preferable to look to deregulation of industries, rather than to impose legacy regulations that go back decades onto businesses," Sachs said. "The cable industry position has been, and is today, that we do not support reopening the '96 act."
When asked for clarification, Roberts said his purpose was to stress that if lawmakers and regulators feel the need to change course, they should remove barriers rather than saddle companies with new layers of regulation.
"It's a directional way that we think people should be looking," Roberts said. "If they're going change anything, it should be in that direction, not in the direction that we have been going."
With respect to instant messaging, Roberts said his point was that open-access issues appeared to overshadow the instant-messaging debate, even though the market circumstances were totally different.
"Instant messaging affected 25 million AOL users that have no choice today," Roberts said. "The open-access discussion-how many Time Warner Cable modem customers are there? One million?"