Comcast tackling satellite head on

PHILADELPHIA - By many measures, this should be the glory moment for cable TV industry leader Comcast Corp.


Comcast has stepped up to meet the competitive threat from satellite TV, and customers are rapidly embracing a "triple play" bundle of digital video, high-speed Internet and phone service, which not only brings in more money but makes customers less likely to jump ship.

Comcast's 48-year-old chief executive, Brian Roberts, knows it's hardly time, however, for the company to rest on its laurels.

Mr. Roberts, speaking in a wide-ranging interview , said Comcast is aware that cable lags satellite TV in customer satisfaction surveys. The company is taking action, even as it greatly expands the premium digital services being offered.

"We have been accelerating our growth over the last three years and we are trying to catch up on delivering quality customer service," Mr. Roberts said. "There are many things we're doing to improve the customer experience and we're already seeing early successes."

Mr. Roberts said most of Comcast's technical workers will have by year's end handheld devices and laptop computers with wireless connections so they can better diagnose technical problems at customers' homes. He said the company also is developing cable boxes that can send messages back to Comcast to identify problems when they occur.

Although satellite might not be the threat it once was, Philadelphia-based Comcast is facing unprecedented competition from phone companies, which now offer high-speed Internet connections as well as video and phone.

Verizon Communications Inc. is building an all fiber-optic network directly to the home that can move data faster than cable lines. It is spending $23 billion to make fiber available to 18 million homes by 2010. The company's FiOS services promise ultra-fast Internet connections and digital video.

In response, Comcast and its cable brethren have come up with a new technical standard that Mr. Roberts says should be able to increase the broadband speeds they can offer by 20 to 30 times, from 6 megabits per second to 160 Mbps or faster for downloads.

Next year, Comcast will start limited deployment and testing of the technology, the latest version of Data Over Cable Service Interface Specifications.

Verizon says it can currently handle 100 Mps - and even ramp up past cable's top speed. The phone company also insists that cable will have a very hard time even getting to 160 Mps.

Meanwhile, a nascent threat is emerging in a technology that could deliver television and movies over wireless Internet connections. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission set rules for the upcoming auction of a valuable swath of spectrum that could carry video, voice and Internet through obstructions and over far distances.

Companies such as Internet search leader Google Inc. have expressed interest in bidding on what could become a "third pipe" into consumer homes to challenge both cable and phone companies.

Mr. Roberts said Comcast is still studying its options and would find partners if it decides to bid.

For now, Comcast is content to sit on the 20 megahertz of wireless spectrum won last fall through SpectrumCo, a group comprising cable companies and Sprint Nextel Corp.

Comcast is majority owner of the group, which could decide to use the spectrum to start its own cell phone network.