Comcast Exec Admits That Net Neutrality Is Not As Scary As Industry Made It Out To Be

Image courtesy of Matthew Keys

When the FCC finalized its new “net neutrality” rules in 2015, adding more regulatory control over broadband data services, the cable industry freaked out. Its biggest player, Comcast, claimed at the time that the federal oversight would be counterproductive, ineffective, and unlawful. Fast forward to present day, and one Comcast executive is admitting that these changes haven’t really had any effect on business.

At a recent UBS investor event, Comcast CFO Mike Cavanaugh sat down for a Q&A session with the analyst who thinks Comcast should maybe buy Verizon.

The discussion [PDF transcript] covered a wide range of topics. High on the list? The kind of changes Comcast and others might expect to see under the incoming Trump administration.

As we’ve previously reported, President-Elect Donald Trump’s picks for the FCC’s transition team signify a likely big change in policy coming next year. Several recent rules may be challenged, overturned, or otherwise rewritten — and a top candidate for the chairman’s seat has already said that he thinks net neutrality’s “days are numbered.”

All of which brought the analyst to a question about net neutrality — specifically, the part of the Open Internet Rule of 2015 that reclassified broadband as a Title II communications service, and made it subject to FCC authority.

“If you saw Title II go away or the reclassification undone,” the analyst asked, “would that be a meaningful change or meaningful benefit for Comcast?”

Cavanaugh’s answer? Basically, it doesn’t matter.

“I think in terms of what actually happens,” Cavanaugh said, “it’s the fear of what Title II could have meant, more than what it actually did mean.”

Yes: he said that actually, being reclassified as a Title II service didn’t actually hurt Comcast at all. And by the way, he added, don’t forget: we love net neutrality!

“As you know, we very much believe in the principles behind what [the] policy was trying to get at,” he continued, “but the overhang of where it could go in the future was something that I think had a chilling effect. Hopefully that chilling effect is gone; both from how investors look at the space and businesses look at the space.”

Cavanaugh didn’t specify whether the sudden absence of lingering fear was due to the impending changeover to a more business-friendly administration, or whether the “chilling effect” has simply dropped away as quarter after quarter of returns make it clear that net neutrality hasn’t actually hurt broadband investment.

And the fact that investment continues, regardless of policy, is something else Cavanaugh covered, if obliquely. When asked if a potential Trump-administration change in tax structures or corporate incentives would change Comcast’s behavior, he said no.

“Are there a whole bunch of things that we woulda, coulda, shoulda done that will change simply because we get to a different place in terms of cash flow [due to policy changes]?” he asked rhetorically. “Now there’s nothing — shame on me, shame on us if there’s something fundamentally different that we would otherwise do. I think we’ve got — the company’s got a reputation for being willing to invest and lean in with good business cases and success base, so that’s our attitude there.”

And as an ISP, Cavanaugh added, Comcast still has lots of room to grow. The company is currently at 43% broadband penetration in its footprint, he said — meaning that in areas where Comcast physically provides service, about 43% of people are using its cable broadband offering. The other 57% of homes aren’t completely offline, though; 6 million potential subscribers are still using DSL instead, Cavanaugh said.

And Comcast’s future isn’t just in wired internet, he pointed out. Comcast is, you may remember, planning to launch a wireless service sometime in 2017 as well.

“We feel very good about” the wireless market, Cavanaugh said. “We’re mobilized and we’re on top of it. … Working hard with our partner there. It’s going well.”

He didn’t offer any specifics, saying only that “we have work to do to design the exact offering we want to have and lots of bits and pieces that go along with getting that right.” But hopefully, he said, Comcast will offer existing customers “something that represents value to them in bringing the best wireless network to bear in a wireless product.”

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