Can Comcast play over the top? CEO Roberts says he's sure Xfinity will take off

Jim O'Neil

Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA) CEO Brian Roberts has a "thing" for Xfinity, the cable provider's answer to subscribers' desires for over-the-top content, and he likes Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL) iPad, too.

In fact, he made it pretty obvious that both were at the heart of the MSO's plans for the future, the innovation that it plans to pursue in 2011 and beyond.

I must have heard him say "Xfinity" more than a dozen times during this morning's fourth-quarter earnings call, and he was freely tossing around the iPad--and its fit with Xfinity--as well.

Xfinity, which he said is now available to 84 percent of Comcast's 22 million subscribers, also has scored well, about 90 percent, in terms of subscriber awareness of the product.

More important, perhaps, is that the public's perception of Comcast has improved since the rollout of Xfinity a year ago. Roberts said Comcast has scored better on customer service metrics and is increasingly being seen as a leader in its segment, as an innovator in the cable industry.

Roberts said Comcast has added a million high-speed Internet users in the past year, 292,000 in the fourth quarter. And that, he said, will help drive Xfinity. What also will help make Xfinity a success, especially on the iPad, he said, will be the live content Comcast plans to put on the tablet this year.

And, as for problems Comcast might have with getting streaming rights for that content, Roberts didn't sound too concerned.

"All content companies want to reach their consumer on as many devices as they can," he said. When they look at Xfinity and the iPad, which has seen some one million Xfinity app downloads since the product rolled out, content producers have to "look at ther strategy" and how it relates to the new technology.

"It reminds me of the beginning of on demand," he said. "People weren't sure we were going to get the best content. But we just plowed away at it year after year. Now, we have more than 25,000 pieces of content. It (Xfinity and live streaming) will happen over time."

Roberts, said he believes Xfinity will be used by low- and high-end subscribers and said the company--at this time--has no intention of imposing usage caps on its subscribers.

And, although the MSO lost 135,000 subscribers in the quarter, Roberts said it was better than the 199,000 it lost a year ago, and an improvement of the third quarter as well. He says Xfinity will help retain customers over time, a focus the company plans to sharpen. -Jim