Comcast: Don’t cut the cord

As the largest cable TV company and largest home Internet service provider in the United States, Comcast boasted a customer base of over 22.5 million TV subscribers and 25.1 million broadband subscriptions in 2017 (Kafka). With this enormous scale comes vast amounts of data—data that Comcast is only recently leveraging with machine learning algorithms to both launch new products as well as to dramatically improve customer experience. While large tech companies and specialized startups may be more well-known for their machine learning efforts, these innovations can be even more critical for incumbents like Comcast. Though live TV remains the primary way consumers view video content, the threat of “cord cutting” looms large as people shift from cable to online streaming options like Netflix (Fortune). Successfully navigating this changing landscape will be key for Comcast to stay relevant.

Historically, one of Comcast’s biggest fundamental challenges has been customer service. The cable industry as a whole is admittedly notorious in that regard, but Comcast may represent the worst of the worst—it recently ranked dead last in a study of NPS scores of 300 companies across 20 industries (Temkin).  Accordingly, machine learning represents an unparalleled opportunity to improve both accurate detection and resolution of customer issues while simultaneously reducing the cost to serve (H2O). Comcast has launched a program that can predict with more than 90% accuracy whether a technician should be dispatched to a customer’s home in order to fix connectivity problems. Because some issues occur inside homes while others occur in Comcast’s network, the machine learning algorithm uses past data to determine what solution path will most likely resolve the problem and is expected to help the company save millions of dollars in costs (FierceVideo). In the future, Comcast will also deploy self-healing networks which use data to detect and remediate failures such that network issues can be resolved without any need for human intervention at all, and oftentimes before they actually impact performance (H2O).

In addition to improving customer service, Comcast is developing a suite of new products to personalize user experience. By combining historical data with real-time streaming elements, Comcast can reliably predict the popularity of a particular TV show or film 24 hours in advance, providing personalized recommendations to different viewing audiences (H2O). Furthermore, using natural language processing, the Comcast Labs team recently developed a voice remote that allows consumers to navigate and select shows using live speech (H2O). Similar to other voice command devices like Google Home and Alexa, the voice remote faces the familiar challenges of interpreting a users’ requests, many of which can be variable in form (e.g., questions around what to watch vs. direct commands) or may have nothing to do with TV programming at all (e.g., checking the weather) (Rao et. al).

Over the next 5-10 years, the vision for Comcast is to use machine learning to position itself as not just a cable company, but a credible player in the smart home space. With its strong foothold in internet, entertainment, and security services, Comcast could leverage its data to cross-train these products to better understand how each individual customer lives. Already, in its emerging security business, the company has developed an Xfinity Home Camera that features smart thumbnails that automatically zooms into moving objects rather than showing a static frame, providing users useful live feeds (Hall). When combined with inputs from its voice remote, the data from its cameras could prove a powerful way to understand customer habits and behavior, providing the backbone of its holistic smart home vision.

Overall, it seems Comcast is well-positioned to improve its existing services using machine learning. I believe the company should focus on first building a product that is backed by outstanding customer service in order to re-gain the trust of consumers. The data suggests that Comcast is well-positioned to improve customer satisfaction using machine learning, but its newer offerings leave me with questions: Does Comcast’s entrenched position give it an advantage when it comes to releasing new home-related products, or is its image inextricably tied to cable? Although Comcast has the advantage of being installed already in 20 million homes, will it be able to compete in the smart home space against more sophisticated competitors like Google and Amazon? It may be an uphill battle, but Comcast’s substantial investments in AI and machine learning in recent years indicate that the cable behemoth is willing to take on these challenges in hopes of retaining its position as the largest media/telecom company in the U.S.  (748 words)

 

Sources

“Comcast’s Machine Learning App Could save ‘tens of Millions’ of Dollars in Truck Rolls.” FierceVideo. September 11, 2017. Accessed November 14, 2018. https://www.fiercevideo.com/cable/comcast-s-machine-learning-app-saves-tens-millions-dollars-truck-rolls.

“Estimates of Cord Cutting Are Exploding.” Fortune. Accessed November 11, 2018. http://fortune.com/2018/07/24/cord-cutting-comcast-netflix/.

Hall, Tonya. “How Deep Learning and Artificial Intelligence Power Comcast’s Voice Remote.” TechRepublic. Accessed November 14, 2018. https://www.techrepublic.com/article/how-deep-learning-and-artificial-intelligence-power-comcasts-voice-remote/.

Kafka, Peter, and Rani Molla. “Comcast, the Largest Broadband Company in the U.S., Is Getting Even Bigger.” Recode. April 27, 2017. Accessed November 14, 2018. https://www.recode.net/2017/4/27/15413870/comcast-broadband-internet-pay-tv-subscribers-q1-2017.

“Net Promoter Score Benchmark Study, 2017.” Temkin Group. Accessed November 14, 2018. https://temkingroup.com/product/net-promoter-score-benchmark-study-2017/.

“Operationalizing Machine Learning at Comcast.” H2O. https://www.h2o.ai/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Case-Studies_Comcast.pdf.

Rao, Jinfeng, Ferhan Ture, and Jimmy Lin. “Multi-Task Learning with Neural Networks for Voice Query Understanding on an Entertainment Platform.” Proceedings of the 24th ACM SIGKDD International Conference on Knowledge Discovery & Data Mining – KDD 18, 2018. doi:10.1145/3219819.3219870.

 

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10 thoughts on “Comcast: Don’t cut the cord

  1. Very interesting topic. I’m certainly glad to hear that Comcast is using machine learning to help better service their customers as I have felt the brunt of their service woes over my lifetime. I am not an expert on this subject but I believe the federal ruling around Open Internet for over the top providers is vital to understanding Comcast’s ability to use it’s current, already established infrastructure to benefit it’s product offering moving forward. If this ruling goes away I think it really increases the earning power of their moving forward, although I think this would be negative for the consumer as it would hinder over the top providers, of which I think are doing a relatively good job. Overall really nice work!

  2. This is a great post. As big as Comcast is, there are definitely impending risks associated with the shift to live streaming and cord cutting. One of my biggest concerns about the industry is the competition from both live streaming services such as YouTube TV, who is also implementing similar machine learning features based on viewer history, and non-live streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and soon-to-be Disney+. Another worry I have with Comcast is that the company may be spreading itself thin in its attempt to reconfigure its value proposition. While the company has penetrated 20 million homes, I believe it will face competitive challenges deploying its physical voice-controlled remote to take share away from incumbent smart homes, such as Google Home or Amazon Alexa, who already offer these integrated solutions. I think this is a very interesting topic and I am excited to see how the industry plays out going forward.

  3. Oh, Comcast! I can’t even say Comcast without thinking about how poor their costumer service is. In fact, I was one of those “cord-cutters”. That said, I was hopeful reading your post. I think you make a very valuable point when you argue that some of the more traditional large companies are actually the ones that need AI the most and could benefit the most from it. They already have the scale and the market share, if they could improve costumer service and other parts of the experience with technologies like AI, I think they could avoid disruption and effectively evolve into the connected world. That said, I am still a bit skeptical. Effectively using and implementing new technologies will require a change in organizational structure and culture, and I think Comcast will have a hard time transitioning to this. What do you think?

  4. Your essay raises a really interesting question: People often expect technology companies and startups to be the ones who leverage data most effectively, but what about the incumbents that already have so much data collected? In this way, I do think that Comcast’s entrenched position is an advantage. The question then becomes how they dedicate resources to pursuing leveraging that access to data into positive business results. I do think that home-related products is one avenue — though I imagine there are others, too, that haven’t been identified yet.

  5. Thank you for bringing to light the current inefficiencies in traditional cable and in particularly Comcast. I believe that although Comcast is entrenched as a cable behemoth, the company can undergo an incarnation using artificial intelligence and machine learning coupled with it’s sheer amount of data to provide an offering that can rival Netflix and Google. It is uniquely positioned to understand what has detered many users from watching traditional TV and eventually lead them to cut the cord.

    I like the changes that Comcast has made to incorporate AI and machine learning into its business model. This is vital if it wants to be a major player in the media/telecom space. A radical and transformative change that embraces the use of technology to better understand customers and their viewership patterns will bode well as TV as we know it is declining.

  6. This post brings up a very interesting question: Why do I feel like I am constantly on the phone with customer service for my cable provider but never with my content streaming providers (Hulu, Netflix, etc.?). Interestingly, it seems like I am not alone — according to Fortune Magazine, Cable TV providers are consistently ranked last in customer satisfaction while companies like Netflix are rising up the ranks. This comes as a shock to me since a rapidly growing number of customers are “cutting the cord” and Cable TV companies just seem to be hiking rates without improving customer service. This lack of investment in customer service will likely expedite the cable cutting movement, leading to continued declines in the number of cable tv subscribers.

    Source: http://fortune.com/2018/05/23/hate-cable-tv-comcast-frontier/

  7. I agree with your assessment that Comcast needs to first focus on using machine learning (and perhaps some added basic human decency) to improve their customer service before they can expect to successfully move into other product areas. Comcast has been able to be successful despite their infamously terrible customer service in large part because, throughout most areas of the country, there are only 1 or 2 cable and internet providers to choose from. Once they enter more competitive markets like home security, I would suspect that most customers would choose to turn to any company but Comcast. Personally, my biggest complaint with Comcast is their use of pricing and bundling structures that force customers to purchase products they don’t want or need to access services they do want. To this end, there may be an opportunity to use machine learning to design better region-specific or even demographic-specific cable bundles that customers view as being of better value, thus decreasing their desire to “cut the cord.”

  8. Great article! Very interesting points. Two things come to mind when I think about how Comcast’s new product offerings and machine learning development will be affected by their entrenched position as a cable provider and ability to compete with Google and Amazon. One is their status as a high speed internet provider and two is the limited footprint in which they are allowed to operate.

    Through Xfinity Comcast is one of the country’s biggest internet provider and I think this gives them a huge advantage. To answer your brand question, the Xfinity brand has been able to distance itself from the low end cable services and is known more for their high end tech solutions which should help them as they expand. Additionally, even as cord cutting has increased, Comcast’s high speed business has grown significantly which helps maintain their footprint and also gives them even better consumer data on which to build machine learning tools. The data from internet services is much more complete and diverse than data from companies where users have to self select into specific services. Controlling a user’s internet also allows them to build better smart home products that integrate more seamlessly than a 3rd party would be able to do. Also, since they are usually the best, if not only, high speed internet provider in a given region, consumers are almost forced to interact with them, giving them an opportunity to bundle smart home products with internet services.

    One concern I would have is how Comcast’s internet and cable footprint is set by regulatory agencies and thus they would have difficulty growing it. As smart homes become more connected to communication, the inability to reach everyone in the country will affect how many services Comcast can offer. For this reason I think their best course of action would be to partner with a tech company also competing with Google and Amazon (Microsoft?) and together their data capabilities would allows for better products.

  9. Very interesting article. It is great to see that Comcast is finally investing in Machine Learning to improve its customer service and existing offerings. I definitely agree with your suggestion that this is a crucial first step to re-gain customer trust. However, I think it might be too late to establish itself in the home-related space, attempting to compete with Google, Amazon etc. It certainly has a chance competing with other cable companies, where machine learning could potentially be its competitive advantage, but the tech giants are much further ahead in this arena. I agree with the comment above that a partnership with a tech company will be the better approach to take.

  10. I completely agree with your assertion that ML and other innovative tech is especially critical for incumbents. I think this hints to the answer to your question re: whether Comcast can expand into a non-cable space; failure to cope with disruptive competitors and compete on their terms usually spells doom for large companies (examples abound, most recently Sears). It’s my belief that these companies go out of business not just because they fail to respond to competitors, but because they don’t understand the significance of the forces that drives these competitors’ success: changes in customer preferences.

    Comcast can’t wish that the world would return to the “good old days” of cable – nostalgia gets them nowhere. They have no choice but to innovate.

    I find these initiatives you described compelling because they demonstrate that Comcast recognizes the need to address consumers’ new behaviours and expectations, and leverage the company’s strength (great content and ubiquity across the US) to meet consumers’ new needs. Time will tell whether they’re successful in staying ahead of the curve…

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