Comcast, Time Warner to merge: What happens to my service?

Comcast said Thursday it has agreed to buy Time Warner Cable for $45.2 billion in stock, a deal that would combine the two largest cable providers in the country. (Reuters)

Comcast’s plan to buy Time Warner Cable for $45 billion would create an enormous company with extensive control over the television content and Internet services a large portion of the country receives.

Here’s what the deal, if approved by regulators, would mean for you.

How would this affect which cable company I can choose?

It probably wouldn’t. Cable companies have carved up the country in a way that means that Comcast and Time Warner Cable don’t compete directly for customers. Both companies say that network speeds, video experiences and WiFi networks would improve with a combined company.

I’m a Time Warner Cable customer. What would happen to my account?

Comcast wants to acquire all of Time Warner’s approximately 11 million subscribers under the deal. So, if you’re a Time Warner customer, you would become a Comcast customer.

But to get the deal past regulators, Comcast has said that it is “prepared to divest” systems that serve about 3 million of its customers — meaning it probably would sell those contracts to another provider. It doesn’t say where those customers are.

What if I’m a Comcast customer?

In terms of service, Comcast said it would add to its network a few key features from Time Warner Cable’s services. Those would include Start Over, which lets viewers restart a live program that’s in progress, and LookBack, which allows them to watch programs up to three days after they air live, even without a DVR. Comcast also said it would keep Time Warner Cable’s networks of 30,000 community WiFi hotspots, and its home security system, IntelligentHome.

Time Warner customers also would be able to buy Comcast services, including its premium television service, Xfinity.

What about my Internet?

It’s worth remembering that Comcast limits how much data its customers are able to stream from the Internet, while Time Warner offers unlimited Internet plans.

It’s not clear what would happen to those plans, or Time Warner’s pricing structure, under the terms of the deal, but it’s possible that regulators might ask Comcast to keep that consumer-friendly unlimited option — consumer advocates are likely to bring it up in comments on the proposal.

Would prices go up?

We don’t know, but consumer advocates are concerned that they might.

Public Knowledge said the proposed deal would make Comcast — already the country’s largest Internet service, video and home phone provider — too big. This deal, combined with Comcast’s acquisition of NBC Universal, is particularly troubling to the public interest group because it says it would give Comcast too much power over the companies that make television shows. Some public interest groups say Comcast’s acquisition of NBC has sent prices creeping up — and the same could happen if it acquires Time Warner.

But Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen said he doesn’t see any reason why the deal would increase subscriber prices.

“I don’t think there’s any way to argue that prices go up,” he said, adding that moving from 22 million to 30 million subscribers is unlikely to change the firm’s negotiating position much.

Still, regulators are expected to look closely at that issue, and pay particular attention to whether a larger Comcast would affect streaming video companies such as Netflix.

Is this deal actually going to happen?

That’s up in the air. The deal must be approved by the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department. Comcast said it expects the review to last until the end of the year.

Because the companies don’t compete for TV customers, it’s hard to argue that the deal would decrease competition. But the FCC may have more to think about.

During a media call to discuss the deal, Brian L. Roberts, Comcast’s chief executive and chairman, said Comcast would extend FCC-mandated “net-neutrality” terms — an agreement not to favor its content over competitor content — to its larger network. The firm agreed to those terms as a condition of its NBC acquisition; they are in effect until 2018.

Related stories:

Comcast, Time Warner agree to merge in $45 billion deal

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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