Comcast’s Brian Roberts: Steve Jobs Pushed For Wi-Fi Via Cable Boxes Years Ago

Comcast is preparing to move deeper into the wireless service business, company chairman-CEO Brian Roberts hinted Tuesday during the opening Q&A session at the Business Insider conference in New York.

Roberts said the company was focused on doing more with its existing relationship with Verizon and Sprint to expand its wireless offerings. “We’re going to experiment in that area,” he told Business Insider chief Henry Blodget, citing the opportunity to “marry” Comcast’s broadband infrastructure with the telcos’ cellular networks. Offering cell phone service would move Comcast into the “quad play” market of offering video, broadband, landline and cell phone services.

Roberts recalled his introduction to the concept of wi-fi came when he was in a meeting years ago with Apple chief Steve Jobs. “He told me he couldn’t understand why we didn’t put wi-fi into every cable box,” Roberts said. “I went home and said ‘What’s wi-fi?’ ”

Roberts noted that some 70%-75% of the bits going over the Internet are being sent via wi-fi these days. The focus on wireless and mobile connectivity offers advantage to cable providers because they reach right into the home with a fat pipe. “There’s nobody better to innovate than the in-home provider,” he said.

Roberts added that Comcast’s business services unit has increasingly been cutting deals to “backhaul data traffic” from wireless networks to offices. He wouldn’t get specific but promised to have “more to talk about next year.”

Roberts opened the session with a demo of Comcast’s X1 operating system that aims to make it easier for user to navigate at home — including through a voice-controlled remote control — as well integrating a host of mobile apps.

Roberts emphasized that Comcast has a laser-focus at present on improving the company’s track record on customer service. Burnishing its image with customers became the priority after its planned merger with Time Warner Cable collapsed last spring.

“All of the energy we were going to put into Time Warner (Cable) has gone into creating a better experience for customers and a better service experience,” he said. That effort is going so far as to have Comcast technicians surprising customers with holiday gifts this week as they make service calls.

Blodget pressed Comcast for specifics on its test marketing of data caps for broadband usage in some markets. Roberts blanched at the term “data cap” and likened the situation to a person having to pay more in gasoline or electrical fees depending on how far they drove or how much they use an air conditioner. Roberts said that the trial markets have found that 95% of customers will not be affected by the limits.

For the others, Comcast is experimenting with offering heavy users the chance to buy more data, or unlimited data, for incremental fees. Although usage-based pricing has generally been frowned on by regulators and the tech industry, Roberts asserted that providers need that flexibility in its relationship with customers. “I don’t think it’s illogical to say that we’re going to try to have that kind of relationship,” he said.

On the entertainment side, Comcast said touted the strong years for NBC and Universal Studios. The film studio, after years of lagging performances, posted its most profitable year ever in 2014 and the year is poised to post the most profitable year for any studio in history. And theme park business has blossomed to a degree that they never anticipated at the time Comcast acquired NBCUniversal in 2011.

Roberts admitted that he told the Comcast board at the time that Universal’s theme parks in California, Florida and Japan had “no value” because they carried so much debt. Five years later, Comcast has bought out its partners in Florida and Japan and is building a new park in Beijing.

Among other tidbits from the session:

— Roberts said Comcast spends “well in excess” of $13 billion-$14 billion on content each year. Content costs across the industry have logged an 8%-12% compound annual growth rate for the past decade.

— Roberts credited the company’s cross-platform Symphony promotional campaign for boosting the box office for “Jurassic World” last summer, from the cable channels airing the older “Jurassic” pics to the cable systems pushing them on VOD. It speaks to the power of “the portfolio our company uniquely has,” he said.

— Blodget pressed Roberts on whether he’s concerned about the long-term health of Comcast’s core businesses, cable and entertainment, at a time when both sectors face major disruption. Roberts emphasized the importance of diversity in its operations. “You try not to have the big bet (just) on one thing, in case you get the one thing wrong,” he said.



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