Q&A: Comcast's Cathy Avgiris

Comcast's EVP and GM of data and communications services discusses the MSO's deal with Verizon Wireless, and what's on deck with Skype and Wi-Fi

Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor

February 29, 2012

10 Min Read
Q&A: Comcast's Cathy Avgiris

Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) and three other major MSOs are marketing and selling wireless services from Verizon Wireless , and some are adding a complementary Wi-Fi strategy that lets cable modem customers stay connected on the go.

In the middle of all this at Comcast is Cathy Avgiris, who was recently promoted to executive vice president and general manager of data and communications services. In addition to heading up Comcast's high-speed Internet and voice products, her new role also has her handling the MSO's new wireless service bundles offered in tandem with Verizon Wireless, as well as Comcast's Wi-Fi strategy.

Avgiris discussed her new, broader role with Light Reading Cable, covering how Comcast and Verizon Wireless are making their new service partnership work, what's on tap for Wi-Fi, an update on Comcast's partnership with Skype Ltd. , and how the MSO will try to put inject some excitement back into its wireline phone product as subscriber growth begins to show signs of flattening out.



— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

Light Reading Cable: Give us an update on the Verizon Wireless partnership. What's your rollout goal for 2012?

Avgiris: We've launched in three markets -- Seattle, Portland and the San Francisco metro area. We have not announced any new markets, but we want to bring more markets on board as quickly as we can. Ultimately our goal is to introduce this across our entire footprint. I don't think we have a specific goal date to when that will be.

I don't want to call it a pause, but we are really looking to nail down both the right packaging construct and to make sure customers understand why it makes sense for them to buy these services together.

Light Reading Cable: What are the lessons you've learned early on?

Avgiris: We've been in this business a month and I think we've learned how … to break through the clutter of all the other marketing messages that are out there so that it makes sense for a customer when they see this. We're calling it a home and away bundle, we're introducing it as two great services [with] one free smartphone. [We're also learning] how to get the point across to the consumer in a way that makes sense to them on the Comcast side, and what it means to have a real powerhouse retail distributor in Verizon Wireless.

By distributor I mean that a lot of their business is through their retail stores and they're very good at understanding how traffic flows and how to bring customers in, and how to engage them, and point them to the products and services you want to offer and feature. That's been a great learning experience for us.

We're marketing this in both Verizon retail stores and our retail stores. We are in the process of upgrading a number of what would have been traditional payment centers into real retail environments.

Light Reading Cable: It's only been a month, but what has been the customer reaction so far? How has this product bundle performed?

Avgiris: We intentionally did not do a lot of demand-stimulation with a lot of marketing to make sure we could process orders and make sure we could make it an easy transaction and an easy experience for the customer to be able to buy everything together in a bundle. The marketing -- the out of home and on TV and print -- just started (on Feb. 13). We took the first three weeks to make sure that we could get our scripts right and focus on training our reps on how to pitch the Verizon Wireless services. We also assisted Verizon Wireless sales agents as well as retail reps to transition to sell-in the triple play. That's been what we've been focused on -- truly operationalizing this partnership.

Light Reading Cable: What kind of heavy lifting has to be done to get the partnership off the ground in each market? I imagine it's more than just lining up billing and OSS systems?

Avgiris: Don't underestimate billing and OSS. You've got to get agreement between two parties on what the combined offer is. You need to make sure everything is co-branded, so both sides need to feel comfortable with the message to consumers, the positioning of the offers -- that was a work stream. Training of reps on either side was clearly a work stream. We needed to understand the wireless products and services and how Verizon Wireless sells their services to consumers. They needed to understand how we sell our double-plays and triple-plays. We had to stand up the ability to complete an order, so our agents needed to be trained in a Verizon Wireless order management system. It's not integrated, but they need to swivel chair and be able to complete an order. If the end goal is to make it an easy experience for the consumer, then you want to be able to complete an order from beginning to end.

It was a fair amount of work streams, but we were able to get it done.

Next page: Whipping Up More Wi-Fi

Light Reading Cable: Turning to the Wi-Fi initiative, on the Comcast fourth-quarter call it was mentioned that you already has 4,000 access points deployed in Philadelphia and parts of Delaware and New Jersey. How aggressive will Comcast be this year in terms of expanding on that?

Avgiris: We spent the better part of last year and maybe even a little bit in the previous year really using the Philadelphia area as a test bed for us to understand how customers want to use Wi-Fi. We've probably got 4,500 access points and we've got some that are down by the [New Jersey] shore. We've got train stations [connected] to make sure we can enable a customer when they are waiting for a train to have access to Wi-Fi. You've got both aerial plant and underground we have to deal with.

We made a significant investment in simplifying the sign-on and authentication of a customer, so that they needed to find the Xfinity Wi-Fi one time and every other time they would be automatically authenticated with their credentials.

Now, we haven't finalized a number of additional locations that we want to go through, but we spent a fair amount of time improving the customer experience, making it easy, so when we do go to that next set of markets, we take those learnings with us.

Light Reading Cable: When you do make that next move?

Avgiris: We will expand beyond Philadelphia in 2012. It's not finalized yet how many locations and at what point in time. But we do want to expand it. It's been a very valuable service for our Internet customers and it goes right in the value proposition of why you want to have Xfinity Internet from Comcast.

Light Reading Cable: Is there any interest in offering access to these hotspots to non-subscribers for a fee such as what Bright House is doing in Florida? I seem to recall you've been offering free access to non-subscribers for a fixed amount of time.

Avgiris: That's been our approach and it continues to be our approach at this point -- if you're not a customer, we enable two free 60-minute Wi-Fi sessions a month. The goal is: If you have a good experience, then I want you to take our Internet service and you'll have all the access to Wi-Fi. We've not gone down the path of charging non-subscribers yet. It may be something we'll evaluate. If it makes sense, we may do that.

Next page: Tuning In Skype

Light Reading Cable: You introduced Skype to the TV product at last year's Cable Show. Is that in trials? When do you expect to deploy it?

Avgiris: There are three market trials. They're really employee trials; we haven't extended it to customers yet but expect to do that fairly shortly. Since we went through the announcement at [the show] we spent the latter half of 2011 really looking to simplify the out-of-box experience. If you were to get this service from us, the out-of-box experience when you buy Skype on Xfinity is going to be unlike what you may have been used to from us. The set-up guide is a lot easier; it's a much more refined look, very easy for customers to plug in, and will help walk a customer through how to do the installation.

It should be for the non-tech, because ... to be there in the moment and experience something in real-time with families across state lines, country lines, as long as they have any Skype connection on the other end, is very powerful. We look to launch fairly soon.

Light Reading Cable: Which markets are conducting the trials?

Avgiris: We haven't announced, because it's only employees so I don't want to create a demand for customers before we're ready to accept orders.

Light Reading Cable: How will you sell this? Will customers have to buy the equipment or will it be with a subscription?

Avgiris: It's going to be a subscription, which we've also not announced yet. But we don't want to have customers to worry about buying adapters, buying cameras -- it all comes in one kit.

Next page: Romancing The Phone

Light Reading Cable: Comcast is still adding voice customers each quarter, but growth is starting to flatten out a bit not just at Comcast but at other MSOs as well. What is Comcast doing to enhance that service and make it more attractive in terms of features or additions and keep that growth engine stoked? You added a new text messaging feature lately, for example.

Avgiris: It's no news to anyone that the voice industry is not growing. It's shrinking, but we have not gone off a cliff. We continue to add subscribers. We've been in the business for six years, and for every quarter for six years we've added net new customers. And we'll want to continue to do that.

We are the largest competitive voice provider, but it's time to change things up and not only reinforce the savings message that we started out with, which is most important, but also make our product more relevant for today's market.

I think text messaging is going to be big for us because it leverages the power of our voice network to provide unlimited text messaging that's included with your voice service from Comcast from anywhere to any ten-digit number anywhere in the U.S. It works just like what you pay your wireless carrier for a texting plan. We include [access to] a number of countries as well. It gives us the ability to text from your smartphone, text from your tablet, from your laptop, from your PC within Xfinity Connect. I think that will be an important new feature for us to leverage along with readable voice mail. We can transcribe a voice mail to text and send it to your email, and it's whatever email [address] you want to send it to.

There are other enhancements that we'll be talking about soon that I think will make our product more relevant, make our savings message that much stronger and continue to propel growth for the voice product and the triple-play.

Back To Page 1

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

About the Author(s)

Jeff Baumgartner

Senior Editor, Light Reading

Jeff Baumgartner is a Senior Editor for Light Reading and is responsible for the day-to-day news coverage and analysis of the cable and video sectors. Follow him on X and LinkedIn.

Baumgartner also served as Site Editor for Light Reading Cable from 2007-2013. In between his two stints at Light Reading, he led tech coverage for Multichannel News and was a regular contributor to Broadcasting + Cable. Baumgartner was named to the 2018 class of the Cable TV Pioneers.

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