The broadband business has turned cutthroat, but Comcast ( CMCSA) isn't quaking. The big Philadelphia-based cable operator told reporters Wednesday morning how it plans to meet the challenge presented by a growing pack of rivals and a shifting landscape. The company said it expects to maintain leadership by offering an expanding list of services and focusing on technical innovation. Comcast Cable President Steve Burke said the threat to the cable sector from rivals -- such as the regional Bell phone companies -- has been overstated, but he conceded that the competitive balance is changing quickly. Indeed, Burke said Comcast expects that half its television viewing audience within five years will be watching with the help of so-called time-shifting devices such as video-on-demand and personal video recorders. That transition presents both a challenge and an opportunity, Burke said. "I have yet to see a true killer app for broadband," the executive added, noting that Comcast in the meantime is being agressive in rolling out video-on-demand, PVRs and services using the company's high-speed data network. On Wednesday, Comcast shares rose 9 cents to $27.94. Burke's comments, made at a media day presentation in Philadelphia, come as investors are watching the cable and telecom industries especially closely. Many people on Wall Street believe that Comcast and its cable brethren Time Warner ( TWX), Cox ( COX), Cablevision ( CVC) and Charter ( CHTR) are poised to steal customers en masse from the Baby Bells, by offering the so-called triple threat of phone, television and high-speed Internet service. But others see the regional Bells -- Verizon ( VZ), SBC ( SBC) and BellSouth ( BLS) -- as poised to take control of the converging communciations business with a coming fiber-to-the-premises network upgrade. Much of the talk in the industry lately has centered on cable's challenge to the Bell local phone business via a technology known as
voice over Internet protocol , or VoIP. But other battlegrounds lie ahead, particularly in the area of video service. Some observers believe TV could, down the road, be a big draw for the Bells.
For his part, Burke remains sanguine about Comcast's position. "We are not by any means ignoring the competitive threat," the executive said Wednesday. "In fact, everything we're doing is embracing it, but we also don't feel it's cause for panicking or thinking the sky's falling." He says Comcast believes the telcos would have to outspend the cable industry, which has already been through a round of network upgrades, in order to compete on services such as video-on-demand. It would take the telcos "many, many years" to do that, Burke said. Indeed, as years go by, evidence mounts that the cable business is here to stay, Burke says. He notes that this isn't the first time that people have seen a looming threat to the cable industry. Ten years ago it was Ray Smith of Bell Atlantic saying the RBOCs would destroy cable, Burke says. Later, satellite broadcasters such as DirecTV ( DTV) were seen as the heir apparent. "Every industry has competition, and competition tends to make people's jobs more difficult," Burke said. "But it does not tend to destroy an industry." That said, for all Burke's optimism, it's clear that his efforts to build partnerships and lay the groundwork for the broadband future have encountered some resistance. He pointed to a meeting he had with then- Viacom president Mel Karmazin. Burke says he asked Karmazin to supply Comcast's video-on-demand project with programming from channels such as CBS News, Nickelodeon and MTV. Burke spent 45 minutes explaining the opportunity, he says. "Mel sort of smiled and said, 'Here's what I want to do. I want to put my head on the table, and I want to close my eyes. And when I open my eyes, I want you to be out of my office,'" Burke said.