The People Vs. Comcast

Brian Roberts excels at turning power over his customers into profits for his shareholders. Now that power is slipping from his grasp.When Ralph Roberts ran his first cable television system, in tiny Tupelo, Miss., he became something of a local hero. In 1963 the birth of HBO was still a decade off, but for Tupelites, frustrated by having over-the-air episodes of the The Jack Benny Program and Gunsmoke ruined by static, Roberts’ service was a godsend. Would-be subscribers chased his installers’ trucks down the street, begging for the chance to pay $5 a month for a clear, reliable picture.Forty-five years later Brian Roberts has replaced his father at the helm of Comcast, and resentment has replaced gratitude in their customers’ hearts.The younger Roberts tightly restricts what his subscribers can and cannot do. Like other cable chiefs, Roberts insists his customers buy TV channels in bulk, not individually. He led a behind-the-scenes battle to prevent cable subscribers from getting their hands on souped-up set-top boxes designed by other companies. And Comcast recently began interfering with customers’ use of Internet peer-to-peer programs.

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