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Comcast Down But Not Out in a Tough Season

Carl Weinschenk

These are interesting days for Comcast, the nation's largest and by far highest-profile cable operator. Make no mistake about it: The fate of Comcast -- to some the A-Rod of cable operators -- is an important element of the overall fate of convergence. The company has more than 24 million subscribers, about 11 million more than runner-up Time Warner Cable. That gives it a lot of clout in Washington as well as with programmers, advertisers, regulators and equipment vendors.


The good news, at least from its subscribers' point of view, is that the multiple system operator (MSO) is moving aggressively to ramp up the speed of its service. The company said this week that it has introduced fast Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification 3.0 (DOCSIS 3.0) to about 30 percent of its footprint, which is about 15 million homes and businesses, according to the report in Ars Technica. The goal is to offer wideband to 65 percent of its service area this year and to eventually provide all its subscribers with 12 Megabit per second (Mbps) service. The story lists the 10 major markets in which DOCSIS 3.0 already is available.


The bad news, however, is for the stockholders in the company. This company is feeling the impact of the recession. The Nashville Business Journal reports that the cable operator laid off about 3,300 people during the second half of last year. CNNMoney adds that profit during the fourth quarter fell 32 percent. The story attributes the decline to scaled-back customer spending and the reduction in value of its investment in Clearwire, which offers WiMax and other wireless services under the Clear banner. During the quarter, the company earned $12 million (14 cents per share), compared to $602 million (20 cents per share) during the year-ago quarter.

 

The fun thing about quarterly results calls is that there is plenty for observers to focus on, and the exact approaches taken tend to vary and emphasize different information. This TVWeek take focuses on how the different business units did in relation to each other. Video customer rolls fell 2.3 percent from the end of 2007 to the end of last year. At the end of 2008, Comcast had 24.2 million video customers. One important number is that 40 percent of the 575,000 customers there were lost left in the fourth quarter. The most meaningful stat, however, is that even in a bad economy the company finished 2008 with 21.4 million phone and data customers, 19 percent more than at the end of 2007. That enabled fourth quarter revenue to rise 9.4 percent to $8.77 billion-and demonstrated the inexorable transition of Comcast from a video-dominated company to a full-service voice, video and data organization.

 

Broadband Reports offers a nice interpretation of a report that it links to in The Wall Street Journal reporting on negotiations between programmers and Comcast and Time Warner Cable to provide programming over the Internet at no extra charge to customers. The commentator is less than overwhelmed. He sees it as perhaps a nice extra for current subscribers, but not something that is likely to affect the big picture. Much of what the companies likely would offer is available elsewhere on the Internet. The big question is whether the downloads would count against data caps set by the operators.

 

Comcast will continue to be a lightening rod -- or A-Rod -- in many important debates. While its numbers are down for the fourth quarter of 2008-whose weren't?-it seems to be navigating the stormy environment and completing the journey to full-service telecommunications provider in fairly good fashion.


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