Anyone who expected the Comcast CEO to draw a line in the sand in an analyst call this morning ahead of the FCC’s controversial net neutrality vote on Thursday doesn’t know Brian Roberts. With federal regulators still weighing the cable giant’s planned acquisition of Time Warner Cable — which the company says it expects to close early this year — the ever-prudent cable king reiterated his opposition to the FCC plan to reclassify the Internet as a regulated Title II communications service. But he stopped short of committing to challenge the ruling in court.
“Until we see the order, it’s premature to speculate,” Roberts says. “We’re heartened that there is at least a desire to forbear on things that would be a disincentive to invest” including regulating broadband rates. “But until we see the fine print we have to reserve judgment.”
Comcast already is “absolutely for open and free Internet,” Roberts says. “We even agree on what President Obama and Chairman [Tom] Wheeler say should be in the rules…The disagreement boils down to what legal authority the FCC should use to put in place these rules.”
Those who favor reclassification argue that, whatever Comcast says now, it and other broadband providers will feel a strong incentive to cut deals that limit competition by favoring some content providers over others. For example, the cable giant might transmit NBCUniversal videos faster than those from a rival such as Netflix — or a start-up that can’t afford to pay. The FCC adopted net neutrality rules in 2010 but a federal court remanded them last year saying that the agency didn’t have the authority to impose them without reclassifying the Internet as a communications service.
As for the Time Warner Cable deal, Roberts says that the FCC’s timetable for approval runs to the end of March. “Lots of information gathering has been taking place. We continue to believe this is an approvable transaction.” Once the FCC deals with its net neutrality order, “hopefully they’ll be able to turn their attention to our transaction right thereafter.”
The Comcast chief added that he was not concerned by the FCC’s recent decision to redefine broadband as a service that delivers 25 megabits per second of data — a change that would make Comcast a monopoly across 63% of its footprint. “It’s an aspirational goal,” Roberts says. Comcast is investing to deliver the speeds. “Our motive has never been for some aggregation benefit in the broadband business but rather to continue to give consumers more and better uses. …That’s what our company has done well, and we’re going to continue to invest that way if we are able to.”