SCTE: Comcast’s Burke Stresses Video Reliability


Philadelphia—Comcast chief operating officer Steve Burke said the nation’s biggest cable company is increasingly focused on eliminating errors in video transmission, to cut down the number of customer complaints.

Burke, speaking on the opening CEO panel here at the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers’ Cable-Tec Expo conference, said Comcast is “laser focused” on video reliability.

“The breakdown in customer service is not [that customer-service representatives are not] answering the phones within 30 seconds—we do that pretty well,” he said. “It’s reliability. It’s taking away the root cause of those phones calls.”

Comcast receives 200 million customer phone calls per year and performs tens of thousands of truck rolls, according to Burke.

With traditional video, “we have too many error rates and too many issues… It used to be if you were running 98% of the time you were OK.”

Now, however, with more customers using services like video-on-demand, having 98% uptime may translate into someone encountering a technical issue 20% of time. Burke said the goal is to reach 99.999% reliability for the video service (a metric referred to as “five 9’s” in the telecom world).

“We have not made the progress I wish we’d made in the last two to three years,” Burke said. “We have to do better… If we don’t have reliability, that will stop us from bringing a lot of exciting things to market.”

At another point on the panel, Burke was asked about the cable industry’s joint ventures, which haven’t always panned out. Most recently, the Pivot mobile phone venture with Sprint and four MSOs was shuttered after disappointing results.

“If you compare the cable industry to other industries, the cable industry has come together more times than not,” Burke said.

Burke called out two major cable initiatives that he said the biggest operators have very strong incentives to see succeed: The WiMax broadband wireless initiative with Clearwire and Sprint, and the interactive advertising Canoe Ventures LLC.

“You can’t do either of those initiatives alone,” Burke said. “If the force pushing everybody together is strong enough, it will overcome individual company differences. My bet is that on these two [joint ventures], the forces pushing us together are so great that we’ll stay together.”

Said Nortel Networks president and CEO Mike Zafirovski: “The cable companies cooperate better than any other industry I’ve seen, and I’ve seen many of them over the years.”

With the Clearwire joint venture, Clearwire and Sprint must still clear regulatory approvals, which could in theory could happen by end of this year. After that, Burke would like to see WiMax rolled out aggressively.

“Our belief is that with WiMax we will get a two- to three-year head start” on the telcos, Burke said. “It would be great to imagine a world where we have wireless broadband, at speeds our competition couldn’t match. I think there’s a real case for us to get moving quickly.”

Meanwhile, Showtime Networks chairman and CEO Matt Blank said that as cable’s voice and Internet services have grown, “video has become much less important to our suppliers.”

That, he said, “is a challenge for us because the premium market requires a lot of care and feeding.”

On the other hand, Blank noted, of the approximately 90 million multichannel video households, Showtime has roughly 16 million as subscribers. “So we see pretty good growth futures in the cable category and through our other distributors,” he said

Burke, asked about the February 2009 digital TV transition—when local broadcasters will be required to cease analog transmission—said he believes Comcast has a big opportunity to pick up new customers.

The number of people who actually go and get a digital-to-analog converter and digital antenna, and then successfully install them will be small, Burke predicted.

“My sense is there will be huge confusion and consumer backlash,” he said.

The issue for the 15% of the people in Comcast’s footprint who don’t have cable or satellite is that “they’ve been marketed to 10 times a year for 10 years—and they don’t want cable.”

“So we have to break through that resistance, and we think we have ways to do that,” Burke said. “We think it’s a major basic subscriber opportunity… and also and opportunity to get high-speed data and phone into that home.”

Charter Communications president and CEO Neil Smit added that the digital TV transition presents “a great opportunity for the industry to demonstrate the customer experience—to help consumers hook up their service and get the signal up and running.”

Earlier in the discussion, Burke recalled when satellite TV operators began competing with the cable industry.

“Ten years ago, when satellite was just starting, we had one financial guy who said we should fire any general manager who loses subscribers to satellite,” Burke said. “Well, satellite now has 30% share of the multichannel video market—we would have had to fire everybody.”