published Sunday, April 26th, 2009

Chattanooga: Ready to go head to head


by Jason Reynolds
Audio clip

Brian Roberts

Comcast intends to continue expanding Internet and high-definition video services to meet consumer demand amid growing competition, the Fortune 100 company’s chief executive said Saturday.

“Competition, as long as it’s fair, is something that pushes you to innovate faster, get better service and have more value,” Brian L. Roberts, chairman and CEO of Comcast Corp., said during a visit to Chattanooga.

Starting this summer, EPB will square off against Comcast and satellite companies in offering video, high-speed Internet and telephone service to consumers. AT&T is expected to offer video and broadband Internet soon in Chattanooga as well.

Mr. Roberts stopped in Chattanooga briefly to meet with about 350 volunteers who were preparing to clean South Chickamauga Creek behind the Brainerd Wal-Mart. The cleanup was part of a nationwide initiative called Comcast Cares Day, in which more than 50,000 Comcast workers, family members and volunteers performed public service.

Mr. Roberts also presented a $25,000 check to Charlie Arant, the Tennessee Aquarium’s president. Mr. Arant said the funds would allow every fifth-grader in Hamilton County to travel on the River Gorge Explorer.

COMPETITION ON THE WAY

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Despite EPB’s plans to expand telecommunication service in this area, Comcast has not seen much competition nationally from municipal utilities, Mr. Roberts said. He challenged the economic feasibility of utilities entering the cable business.

“It’s raised significant questions for taxpayers. ... In some cases it’s a money loser,” said Mr. Roberts, who noted he is unfamiliar with EPB’s telecommunications plan.

Comcast operates in a competitive environment, he said.

“We’ve said for years DirecTV, Dish Network already compete with us on television here in Chattanooga,” Mr. Roberts said.

The local office declined to say how many customers Comcast has, but said it has 55 percent market penetration.

An EPB official said Saturday the utility has a viable business model for telecommunications.

“Other municipalities have had excellent results,” marketing Vice President Danna Bailey said. “We think competition is great for the community. We’ve got a pretty conservative business plan, and based on feedback from the community, we feel like it will be successful.”

Some Comcast customers have said they welcome more competition. They have complained about annual rate increases ranging from 3 percent to 7.5 percent since 2002.

Asked if Chattanooga’s rates would rise this year, Mr. Roberts said local offices set their own rates.

Comcast’s Chattanooga vice president, Valerie Gillespie, said this year’s rate structure has not yet been addressed.

Mr. Roberts also said it’s not feasible to let consumers select channels a la carte. Content providers offer channels in packages to meet demand for a variety of entertainment options, he said. Cable options have expanded from basic packages to options ranging from sports to Hispanic entertainment, he said.

“You wouldn’t have all the choices you have today, in our opinion, if you buy them one at a time,” said Mr. Roberts.

SERVICE UPGRADES

The Philadelphia-based company, the nation’s largest cable provider, is rolling out innovations this year that include doubled Internet speeds and more high-definition channels.

Comcast is launching a $16 million program called The World of More, in which all analog customers except those on the basic tier will be upgraded to digital at no charge. Internet speeds will be increased as well.

Comcast of Chattanooga will have 62 HD channels by mid-June, officials said.

Video on demand could grow to 10 times its present size in coming years if content providers would give cable companies the rights to use more programs, Mr. Roberts said. The system allows people to select from a menu of recorded programs to watch at their convenience.

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