Commisso Open to Charging Web Fees

Washington -- Cable broadband-access providers shouldn’t be barred by government from charging fees to Web-based content, search and applications providers that depend on fast data links to attract and retain online users, Mediacom Communications Corp. chairman and CEO Rocco Commisso said Monday.

“So far, we haven’t charged,” Commisso said at an American Cable Association conclave here. “But I don’t think we can make a statement that forever we cannot be allowed to charge anything.”

Commisso also included cable programmers in his analysis, noting that major programmers are selling primetime fare as Web downloads without including cable operators in the revenue stream.

“The programmers don’t like a la carte, but they seem to like a la carte when they take 100% of the money,” he said. “They are taking that brand, extend[ing] it out and making money through our pipe … [and then] going to the government and say[ing], ‘By the way, don’t let Rocco charge anybody for this usage because I want 100% of my money.’”

Last fall, AT&T Inc. chairman and CEO Edward Whitacre made similar comments on Internet fees in an interview with Business Week. In the view of some, Whitacre ignited the network neutrality debate on Capitol Hill, prompting the pursuit of legislation that would ban the kind of payments that Commisso said might develop as a business model.

“I think what the phone industry’s saying and what we’re saying [is] that we made a huge investment … in our infrastructure, and I don’t think the government should be coming and telling us how we can rent that infrastructure. It’s as simple as that,” Commisso said.

He added that if the Congress were to step in, it should adopt policies that embrace the flow of payments to broadband-network owners.

“If anything, if it should be changed, it should be changed that as people use your pipe, we should get something out of it,” he said.

Art Brodsky, a spokesman for Public Knowledge, a proponent of net-neutrality legislation, indicated that high-speed-data subscription revenue should be sufficient income for cable operators.

“To my knowledge, no one has given away any access to any service. Consumers pay each month for cable-modem service. Companies pay their telecommunications costs. The logic of charging people more as a way to attract and retain customers seems dubious at best,” Brodsky said.

Commisso's comments were the boldest yet from a major MSO executive. By and large, cable leaders have downplayed the network-neutrality debate, calling it a cure in search of a problem because cable MSOs have neither blocked lawful Web sites nor established fast lanes for content providers that have made payments for the privilege.

“I’m speaking for myself right now and our company’s interests,” Commisso said, adding that the National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s position is that legislation is not only unnecessary but potentially dangerous.

“Our position at the NCTA -- I’m also on the board of directors of NCTA -- [is] government stay out of it. It’s worked fine, you don’t need to change anything,” he said.

Mediacom is the eighth-largest U.S. cable company, with 1.4 million video and 500,000 high-speed-data subscribers concentrated outside large urban clusters.

On the same panel Cable One Inc. CEO Tom Might defended Commisso on the need for government to refrain from Internet regulation.

“We don’t know who is going to pay whom. He’s saying maybe networks should be paying us now or someday to be on our pipe. Who knows?" said Might, whose MSO serves about 660,000 video subscribers.

Might indicated that a Web-payment system that involved network operators might be necessary to ensure that broadband networks can be managed to optimize consumer satisfaction.

“But if the government is going to make these decisions, they make them through a rear-view mirror or through these jazzy political campaigns when nobody knows what these fancy words mean or what life will be like with net neutrality someday when you have someone trying to shove way more video down a pipe -- our pipe or anybody’s pipe -- than that pipe can handle,” he added.