Why Comcast’s CEO Is Bullish on Net Video

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts
Photo: David Needle

SAN FRANCISCO — Comcast CEO Brian Roberts talked up new services that the cable giant is developing here at the start of the Web 2.0 Summit on Tuesday afternoon.

Roberts said Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) is driven by a “pay once, consume anywhere” vision that will make its services available to consumers via the Web and mobile devices as well as traditional cable TV. In a brief demo, he showed off Fancast, an Internet service currently in beta that Comcast plans to roll out nationwide by the end of this year with new on-demand features.

Fancast will have everything Hulu offers today “and then some,” said Roberts, who called it the equivalent of “video on-demand Nirvana.”

He added, “Everything is free and ad-supported. We already have over 9 million unique (visitors) per month. I think video over the Net is our friend, not foe.”

Like Hulu.com, Fancast already offers thousands of TV shows and more than 1,000 full length movies. In the final release later this year, users will be able to log-in and have full access to the same premium programming they have on Comcast without repaying for it.

“We’re not bound by the storage in your cable box,” said Roberts. “You can get every episode of Entourage, all seasons. Fancast will also offer a remote DVR function so you can program your DVR from a browser on a PC or notebook to have it record shows you want to view later on your TV. You can’t do this anywhere on the Web today, and we’ll have this by the end of the year.”

On-demand, Apple and ROI

Program Chair John Battelle asked Roberts if he feared Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) in light of the phenomenal growth of its iTunes service. Roberts said he’d had several meetings with Apple CEO Steve Jobs and other Apple executives about ways they might work together and “make Apple TV a great experience.”

Roberts added: “I think Apple is an amazing company and anyone who isn’t paying attention to what they’re doing isn’t doing their job.” He also noted Comcast has a big investment in on-demand. “We’ve had 13 billion on-demand downloads. That’s twice as many as iTunes,” he said.

Roberts said the company’s vision for consumers is that they can pay once, consume everything from TV, the Web and mobile devices. He said Comcast is making big investments on infrastructure improvements (up to $5 billion this year in capital spending on top of $5.5 billion last year) that will improve broadband performance and services it can offer.

“Frankly, we don’t have a business plan to pay for it all,” said Roberts, adding that the development of DVR and other services were crucial to keeping the company competitive and customers satisfied.

Net neutrality

On the controversial issue of Net neutrality, Roberts scoffed at the idea that companies like Comcast want to or could prevent equal access to the Internet. “The idea that we’re not going to have an open Internet is just not realistic,” he said.

But he also noted that about one half of one percent of Comcast users account for about 25 percent of the company’s bandwidth, and that affects the performance the Internet provider can offer consumers.

“We all want faster performance and there needs to be some ability to have transparency of how we do that,” said Roberts. “How much regulation comes in and does it stifle innovation? We welcome that conversation” with the government, he added.

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