Comcast is focused on diversifying its revenue as it continues to evolve out of a traditional cable company and its very presence should have an impact on a local technology community, said CEO Brian Roberts last week.
Roberts was speaking to Philadelphia magazine editor Tom McGrath in an hour-long fireside-style chat as part of the magazine’s new ThinkFest salon series. Some 80 people were seated in an auditorium in the modern basement of the new Barnes Foundation on the Ben Franklin Parkway.
Roberts appeared polite and reserved throughout the conversation, which touched on a dozen or more interesting, if non-controversial, topics around the Fortune 50 business. What wasn’t asked: anything on net neutrality, digital access, competition with Verizon, its lobbying footprint, FCC-mandates, potentially anti-competitive media pipeline ownership and much more.
But there was plenty that came out that was more than worth sharing:
- “In two years or less, Comcast will have more high speed data customers than TV, and we’re supposed to be a cable company.”
- How do you help grow the Philadelphia technology community? “We’ll do our part. Business set up shop around Philadelphia to sell their goods and services to us, and we need them.” Josh Kopelman can attract investment and energy, Roberts said, when prompted with the First Round Capital office move, like a John Dorr. “I don’t know if you can light the fire. I think it has to light itself,” Roberts said, implying perception and influence of the local tech scene has to come organically, not from institutionally and government input.
- Comcast X1 will roll out nationally before the end of the year — Tired of ragging on that old blue OnDemand platform, standing in line for a new cable box and getting a precise line of view between your remote control and that box? Roberts demoed the company’s rumored X1 platform which aims to solve all of those problems: (a) a sleek, updated platform, (b) that is cloud-based to allow Comcast to widely push out updates to customers and (c) a new, more flexible remote control that features Siri-like voice command.
- The business services division of Comcast is proportionally small but its fastest growing — It brought$3 billion in 2012 revenue and has grown by more than a third year over year by offering internet, phone and the like to small and medium size business customers. “We’re trying to get out of the home,” said Roberts, tying back to his beleif further diversifying the company’s revenue, like its NBC Universal purchase.
- Comcast wants to grow internationally — By way of NBC Universal, Comcast now has 3,000 employees abroad
- “Thank God for Steve Burke” — The entertainment division of the company is entirely in his hands, which is why he moved to NYC (leaving his Rittenhouse rowhome) and has left business and customer services and broad vision to Roberts.
- At the end of the year, “I can definitively say we will not end in last place among networks,” Roberts says of NBC, in just two years since picking up the failing broadcast nework.
- Comcast is spending money in Universal — “We’re putting another one billion into Harry Potter [theme park]. Universal park has a 20 percent Orlando theme park market share to Disney’s 80 percent. “If we grow the pie or take five percent, that is huge.”
- The new Comcast-NBC Universal logo is part of making it “one company” — “We are an entertainment company more than [former NBC owner] GE ever was.”
- Comcast is among the country’s largest advertising companies — Of the company’s $65 billion in annual revenue, more than $10 billion is from advertising, he says.
- Brian Roberts wanted to work for his father from the age of 10 years old — “I always wanted to, whatever that business was,” he said, adding that father and Comcast founder Ralph Roberts was once in a belt sales business. “That could have ended differently.”
- “Zero percent chance” of Comcast moving headquarters from Philadelphia, Roberts said — That might raise the eyebrows of taxpayers who remember the tax credits Comcast fought for to erect its skyscraper, which is now “out of space,” Roberts said, but he added that during the company’s 2002 bid to take the telecom business of Denver-based AT&T that they wanted to pair up on a new corporate headquarters in NYC to “to show a merger of equals,” but it wasn’t, Roberts said. “Thank goodness for Acela.”
- Comcast is an IT company, with more than 1,000 software engineers, many in Silicon Valley rather than Philadelphia. Comcast also has 15,000 employees in Los Angeles now.
- “Being here is a great advantage,” referencing Wharton and Drexel and other universities.
- Having a New York presence is valuable for talent retention — “We used to have to rip people out of New York and now they can stay there because we have offices there.”
- Innovation in Comcast — “My number one job is keeping innovation in the company… The joke was that the way to get ahead at the phone company was to not make a mistake. I want that at Comcast to be the way to get ahead is by making risks.”
- What do you worry about? Apple has $100 billion in cash and we have $40 billion in debt. I worry about that.”
- Whom do you admire? “I’m a fan of Apple… and the prescience of Bill Gates,” who told him 1996 that data would be more profitable than cable for his company. That’s why Gates pushed for Microsoft to pump $1 billion into Comcast.
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