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One fascinating reason cable companies won’t willingly compete against each other

A coaxial cable is displayed for a photograph in front of a Time Warner Cable helmet in Manhattan Beach, California, U.S., on Monday, August 12, 2013. Photographer: Patrick Fallon/Bloomberg

If you're like many Americans, you might live in an area that's effectively dominated by a cable monopoly. And maybe you were hoping that someday, another cable company might come in and start competing with the local incumbent to drive down prices and improve your service.

Charter's recent takeover of Time Warner Cable made that a distinct possibility. As part of the deal, regulators required Charter to start building Internet pipes to serve new customers beyond its current footprint — and to tread directly on the territory of other Internet providers. That meant, in theory, that for the first time Americans might start to see some direct, head-to-head competition between cable companies such as Charter and the likes of Comcast or Cox. For beleaguered cable subscribers, that could have been a breath of fresh air.

But Charter execs now say they won't be going down that route. Instead, they'll be meeting their regulatory obligations by expanding into areas where the existing broadband provider is a telecom company such as Verizon or AT&T — not a cable provider. This basically torpedoes any chance that the deal will result in new cable-on-cable competition.

Here's Charter chief executive Tom Rutledge, speaking at an investor conference last week according to Multichannel News:

At the MoffettNathanson Media & Communications Summit, though, Rutledge said the plan is to focus on telephone companies in its overbuilding strategy, not cable companies.
“When I talked to the FCC, I said I can’t overbuild another cable company, because then I could never buy it, because you always block those,” Rutledge said at the MoffettNathanson event. “It’s really about overbuilding telephone companies.”

Okay. Several important things are going on here, so let's unpack them one at a time. First, Rutledge is confirming what I just described. There will be no overbuilding of cable, meaning that Charter won't try to deploy new cable infrastructure in places where there's already a cable company. In effect, Charter is committing to a non-aggression pact with other cable companies.

The more interesting part is why. Even though telecom companies and cable companies offer similar services to consumers by selling TV and Internet, the distinction Rutledge is drawing between these industries is incredibly important, because it provides a very strong hint for what's next in cable.

Rutledge's justification for not competing with other cable firms appears to boil down to an anticipation of more mergers and acquisitions. What Charter really wants is the flexibility to buy up other cable companies in the future, and it'll have a harder time selling those deals to government regulators if Charter has been competing with the target firms the whole time.

You see, antitrust officials tend to be skeptical of acquisitions that wind up eliminating a competitor from a market. It's why they didn't bite at AT&T's effort to buy up T-Mobile back in 2011, which would have reduced the number of national wireless carriers from four to three. For the same reasons, officials didn't like Sprint's attempt to acquire T-Mobile in 2014. Both were cases that could potentially have reduced competition by ending a rival.

Suppose Charter started competing with a cable company called ACME Cable in Anytown, America. Then, when Charter wanted to buy ACME Cable and take over all of its customers, it would have to persuade regulators that the deal really was a good thing for customers even though by killing off ACME, it would be eliminating a competitor and creating an effective monopoly in Anytown.

That's the problem Rutledge wants to avoid. And his solution is simply not to compete with other cable firms.