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Is this David the next broadband Goliath?

Fri, 11/30/2001 - 7:00pm
Mike Lafferty

Google Factor: 20,820

It's hard to separate Comcast Corp. from the father-son tag team that made the company the third-largest cable operator in the nation. Chairman Ralph Roberts founded the company as a second career in 1963 at the age of 43. Son Brian joined the company in 1981 and worked his way up the corporate ladder, and by 1997, received voting control of the company from his father.

Neither one has ever looked back, yet many business and industry professionals are keeping a close watch on the dynamic duo. The waves that were caused by their unsolicited $52.4 billion bid for number-one rival AT&T Broadband this past July are still pounding the telecommunication shores. Yet, Comcast business goes on as usual–focused, deliberate and profitable.

Since Brian took control of the company's controlling stock, it has spent $17.35 billion on cable system acquisitions, nearly doubling its subscriber base from 4.37 million at the end of 1997, while expanding revenues 67 percent to $8.22 billion last year. In one recent 12-month period, the Standard & Poor's 500 Index dropped 14 percent–during the same period, Comcast's stock jumped 14 percent.

Obviously, the Robertses and Comcast are doing a lot of things right.

Maybe it's the 66 percent ownership they have of Comcast-Spectacor, a company created when they bought the Philadelphia 76ers and combined it with Spectacor, owner of the Flyers National Hockey League team and two Philly sports arenas. Maybe it's the fact that Comcast has the moxie to withhold home game telecasts from satellite TV rivals to spur local fans to join the company's subscriber ranks.

Maybe it's Comcast's 56 percent stake in the TV/Internet shopping cash cow, QVC Inc. and what it provides–43 percent of the company's 2000 revenue. Maybe it's the rite-of-passage payday that Brian engineered when he challenged Microsoft's Bill Gates to invest a cool $1 billion in mid-1997 for nonvoting stock with no strings attached.

Or, maybe it's the consolation prizes it received when AT&T trumped its surprise $60 billion bid for MediaOne in March 1999. That corporate one-upsmanship garnered Comcast a $1.5 billion termination fee and the right to acquire 2 million subscribers from the "victorious" AT&T.

Nah, it's probably the simple fact that the company is one of the most respected, well-run cable companies in the world. It's Comcast's dogged dedication to a system-wide upgrade. It's the company's roll out of new services–digital cable, high-speed Internet access, HDTV, and video-on-demand–AND the customer service to support them.

Or, maybe it's the vision and tenacity Ralph and Brian Roberts have shown in forging a path that other operators will follow.

Economic impact note:Recent reports say AT&T has informed all interested parties to complete their due diligence and submit final, formal acquisition proposals by the end of November. AT&T will then weigh the offers and hold advanced negotiations, or reject them out of hand and proceed with it's original spin-off plan.

Meanwhile, AT&T has installed a formidable triumvirate of cable veterans to run its troubled cable unit. William Schleyer has been named president of AT&T Broadband, Ron Cooper is the new COO, and David Fellows is MSO's new chief technical officer. (See story, page 44.)

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