Comcast shares leap as phones pick up

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Shares in Comcast, the world’s biggest cable television operator, rose more than 5 per cent on Thursday after the company reported record numbers of new subscribers for its telephone, high speed internet and digital television services.

The results echo similar strong performance by smaller operators, such as Cablevision, and suggest that customers are keen to sign up for bundled telephone, internet and video packages.

Comcast has rolled out its digital phone services later than other cable groups, and the first quarter of the year is the first time take-up has been significant. That lag, together with fears of a price war with telecoms groups offering similar bundles, has led to a recent, sharp underperformance of cable stocks.

“After many quarters of frustration at its [digital phone] deployment pace, it appears that Comcast is finally in the thick of its phone ramp-up,” said Craig Moffett, analyst at Sanford Bernstein. “Just as importantly, their voice launch appears to have boosted results in other areas as well.”

In the first quarter, Comcast, which has 21.5m video subscribers, added record digital, high-speed internet and voice subscribers, with its increase of 47,000 subscribers to its basic video package the highest for the first quarter in three years.

First-quarter net income more than tripled to $466m, from $143m last time. Brian Roberts, chairman and chief executive of Comcast, said the company was “feeling more vibrant than at any other time”.

“We are definitely on the offensive,” he told the FT.

Even before the strong results, Comcast shares had risen nearly 12 per cent from a low-point in mid-March. By midday in New York, the shares were at $30.75, up 5.3 per cent on the day.

The message from cable executives that competition from telecoms companies – which are rolling out video services in addition to their phone and internet connections – is still very limited in much of the US is starting to be heard by investors. The shift has also benefited Time Warner, the world’s biggest media company and second-biggest US cable operator.

In recent years, cable companies have lost millions of subscribers to satellite rivals DirecTV and Echostar, but that trend appears to have halted as cable groups offer a broader range of services. Satellite companies are currently trying to find ways to offer two-way services such as high-speed internet access, one of the strongest areas of growth in the US market.

Thursday’s Comcast results are likely to fuel this trend. “We expect strong performance to continue this year ahead of burgeoning competition from the telcos, which is not material enough currently to impact the industry,” said Aryeh Bourkoff, analyst at UBS.

Looking ahead, Mr Roberts said this year’s focus would continue to be on selling bundled products, but that next year selling services to companies as well as increasing revenues from interactive advertising would become more important.

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