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Comcast CEO: We are not a dead duck

At Web 2.0 Summit, Brian Roberts previews new on-demand video features and insists his company has more in common with Web innovation than techies will admit.

SAN FRANCISCO--Cable companies get a lot of criticism from the Silicon Valley set for being some of the ultimate 20th century corporate dinosaurs. Or, as Web 2.0 Summit conference organizer John Battelle put it, "a dead duck."

So the head of Comcast, a company that's taken loads of heat from tech experts--for imposing bandwidth caps, poor customer service, and an alleged failure to innovate on both broadband speeds and the convergence between television and the Web--was an interesting choice to kick off the summit event here on Tuesday. But Comcast CEO Brian Roberts spun his company to the audience as springing from the same kind of entrepreneurial spirit that the Bay Area prides itself on.

He spoke of how he took over the reins of the company from his father, who according to legend was able to make an early strategic acquisition thanks to the winnings from a Tupelo, Miss., poker game the night before. "Similar to probably almost everyone in this room, (he) wanted to work for himself, wanted to start his own business."

He previewed new features for the Comcast video hub Fancast, which it launched slightly under two years ago at the Consumer Electronics Show. The new beta of Fancast, which will launch by year's end, will make new on-demand content available online, much of it unavailable in outlets like iTunes--and integrated with DVR boxes--to Comcast cable subscribers who already pay for HBO. About two dozen content providers have signed on board, and as Roberts scrolled through the preview, he noted that there were about a thousand movies available.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts
Comcast CEO Brian Roberts Comcast

Battelle, interviewing Roberts onstage, called it "video-on-demand on steroids."

The Associated Press, referencing a briefing this week with executives at Comcast's Philadelphia headquarters, helped fill in some of the details about the service, noting that it would include such popular cable shows as HBO's "Entourage" and AMC's "Mad Men" and for now is being called "On Demand Online."

The AP said Comcast subscribers can initially watch shows and movies only on their home computers after being verified by the cable system. Online viewing, at least in the beginning, will be restricted to those who get Internet service through Comcast, not through competitors like phone companies, the AP said.

Back at Web 2.0 Summit, Roberts also said that Comcast investments in broadband technology are, in part, what has facilitated the explosion in Web innovation.

"We're going to keep investing, because we believe there are great ideas in this room and in this country and in the world," Roberts said. "In the same way, it's unthinkable that a Google or a Yahoo or a Facebook or a Twitter would be happening if we hadn't made those investments (in broadband infrastructure) 15 years ago."

Battelle asked Roberts why he believes the U.S. lags behind in broadband technology advancements. Roberts replied, "I think that that's just not true."

(The audience laughed uncomfortably.)

"We have the same equipment (as other countries), the same wires, the same infrastructure, why is the adoption different is a different question. It's not the availability and I don't think it's the lack of speed," he continued. "You get to digital literacy, you get to what language it's in, do you have the right PC or a PC at all...I don't believe the infrastructure providers haven't done enough."

As for Net neutrality, an issue where Comcast has been a frequent villain after imposing bandwidth caps and interfering with peer-to-peer file-sharing software, Roberts was vague.

"We welcome that discussion, that scrutiny, and we're going to be an active participant," he said. "The few limited examples, including our own, that have gotten notoriety usually get dealt with in ten seconds, and changes get made, because this is new technology."

More recently, it's bubbled into the press that Comcast is in talks with General Electric to obtain a controlling stake in its NBC Universal property. Conveniently, GE chief Jeffrey Immelt was slated to speak later in the afternoon at Web 2.0 Summit.

"You and Jeff Immelt must have finished the NBC deal back in the green room," Battelle joked.

Roberts replied facetiously, "It's all done."