LAS VEGAS -- The next generation of Internet cable modems will let users download a full set of encyclopedias in a few minutes, transfer 75 songs or thousands of photos in a few seconds, or download TV shows and movies in a fraction of the time it takes today.
In the first public demonstration of "wideband" cable modems, Roberts' prototype hit data transfer rates of about 150 megabits per second. That's substantially higher than the 6 to 10 mbps capability of most of today's cable modems, and up to 100 times faster than the 1.5 to 3 mbps that telephone companies typically offer through a digital subscriber line (DSL).
"It's kind of mind-boggling when you consider the potential use of a platform that can let you do something at this ... speed," Roberts said at a cable industry conference here. "It's a whole new platform."
Roberts declined to say when or where his company would start rolling out the new high-speed modems, but it could be several years.
That's because having the technology is one thing, but investing the time and money to deploy it is another. The technology also would require cable companies to give up the bandwidth equivalent of four channels, Roberts said - something that most cable operators aren't ready to do.
"It's a good demo ... but it's a long way" off, predicted technology industry analyst Richard Doherty of the Envisioneering Group. Doherty pointed out that it took three years before the cable industry was able to offer the current version of Internet modems to 10 percent of its subscribers.
That said, the fastest-ever modems are key to the cable industry's continued growth and one of the most important weapons in its still-building fight against telephone, Internet and satellite companies, said Roberts, who runs the nation's biggest cable company.
Also key to the industry's future is more consolidation, executives of the biggest cable and entertainment companies agreed in a panel discussion at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association's annual meeting here.
In coming months, they predicted, the biggest companies are likely to go on buying sprees that will result in many small companies being gobbled up.
"I think you need scale to compete," said Richard D. Parsons, chairman and CEO of Time Warner Inc. The main reason his company recently took its subsidiary Time Warner Cable public, Parsons said, was to raise money for future acquisitions.
Peter F. Chernin, president of News Corp., perhaps the most aggressive media business in the world, agreed.
"I believe you will see continued consolidation," said Chernin, whose company is currently trying to buy Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal. "The big [companies] will continue to get bigger."
The churning waters surrounding the cable industry are already starting to make other waves. Just last week, the family behind Cablevision Systems Corp. completed a deal to take the New York company private. Other companies - including Insight Communications and Atlanta-based Cox Communications Inc., a sister company to Cox Newspapers - also have gone private in recent years.
While not naming potential takeover targets, Parsons said the biggest cable companies have to continue to grow by acquisition, in part to make sure they can compete with emerging rivals, including Internet upstarts such as Google Inc., which now owns online video site YouTube.
In pointed comments, Parsons compared the current environment of his industry to a sport. Relatively smaller companies such as Google might be nimbler players for now, but ultimately they'll suffer defeat.
"We're getting control of our bodies ... and when we do, we're going to run the little guys down," he boasted.
Seated with Comcast's Roberts, News Corp.'s Chernin and Viacom Inc. President Philippe P. Dauman, Parsons forecast that many Internet video and entertainment companies might be history in a decade or so.
"Ten years from now, all these companies will still be here," Parsons said, referring to fellow media heavyweights. "I'm not sure about the new kids on the block."