There was a short interview in Fortune recently with Comcast CEO Brian Roberts about Comcast’s views on competition. Roberts’ responses are a very good summary of the state of cable competition in the country in general.
First, when asked about competition today Roberts said that Comcast feels competitive pressure every minute and that he thinks the market is getting increasingly competitive. That’s an interesting comment. There are certainly markets where people are building fiber to compete against Comcast. We see CenturyLink building fiber in a number of large cities. Verizon has announced that it’s going to expand FiOS in Boston. Google is slowly building fiber, although not yet in many Comcast markets. And there are a tiny number of municipal fiber builds, mostly in more rural markets.
But to offset those new fiber competitors it’s obvious that Comcast is crushing DSL in its many markets. The older DSL equipment is just becoming too slow and DSL customers are finally upgrading to faster cable modem service. Overall Comcast added a net of almost 1.4 million new broadband customers in 2015. So for every customer they might have lost to fiber they have picked up many more from competing with DSL. Because Comcast’s cable modems are so superior to DSL, in the vast majority of its markets Comcast now has a virtual monopoly on real broadband.
Roberts was also asked about the company’s interest in competing outside of Comcast’s cable service territories. Unsurprisingly Roberts said that the company has no plans to expand its footprint. The FCC has been bringing the pressure on cable companies to become more competitive. But I am not aware of an example where one of the major cable companies has ever competed against one of their neighboring cable providers. In other places like Europe and Canada there are markets where cable companies compete against each other – but in this country there is an obvious tacit agreement among the cable companies to not step on each other’s monopoly turf.
Finally, Roberts was asked about current news that Comcast might be thinking about offering a competitive cellular product. The company tried this a few years ago together with some other cable companies but then ditched the attempt. Roberts says that the company is exploring the concept (something they probably have been doing for a decade) but that – unless the company can find some unique value proposition – they probably won’t enter the cellular market. Interestingly, one of the values of the merger between Charter and Time Warner is that it gives Charter the contracts that allow the company to offer an MVNO cellular product. We’ll have to watch to see if anything comes of that possibility.
In summary, Comcast says they see competition everywhere. It’s an interesting perspective because the company is overall as close to a monopoly as any company can be in the telecom space in this country. There is a lot of public relations and regulatory benefit for Comcast by acting besieged by competition. If Comcast was instead touting their monopoly advantage they would probably come more under the crosshairs at the FCC and at state regulatory bodies.
But I have a hard time seeing where competition is hurting the company. They are still adding customers like crazy. Revenues and profits are up. The company has made big headway in rolling out new security and home automation products. And in a large percentage of its markets the company is becoming a virtual monopoly.