Faced with difficult questions about his company’s pending takeover of Time Warner Cable — which would combine the two largest cable internet providers in the U.S. into a company consumers will likely hate twice as much — Comcast CEO Brian Roberts made one thing very clear: his company is determined to sit directly in the middle of the tech world.
Roberts, speaking at the Code Conference Wednesday, said Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once told him that Comcast “should be the best dumb pipe,” a common sentiment in the tech industry that internet service providers should get out of the way of the content and device industries and just provide reliable broadband service. But avoiding that low-margin fate has been a telco vow for decades, and Roberts made it very clear that Comcast wants to be “the best pipe.”
That means it wants to preserve a gatekeeper role. In a series of analogies, Roberts likened his company’s role to that of a postmaster, pointing out that Netflix pays hundreds of millions of dollars to mail DVDs to its customers but now expects to be able to deliver the same content over the internet for free.
“They would like it all to be free. I would like to not have to pay for cable boxes,” he said. Delivering bits over a pipe seems just a wee bit more cost-effective than paying the energy and labor costs of physical distribution, but Roberts didn’t get into that.
What should it cost to deliver content over the internet? It’s a contentious question for several reasons. One, of course, is the pending merger, which we believe would hurt broadband consumers by reducing competition and decreasing the incentive for Comcast to upgrade its networks over time. Then there is the debate over net neutrality and paid peering, which are separate issues but ones in which Comcast finds itself in opposition to a lot of tech and new media companies.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Roberts greatly preferred to talk about the traditional television landscape compared to broadband issues, although interviewers Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher — aided by audience questions — did their best to force him to talk about broadband.