A funny thing happened on Comcast’s path to becoming the de facto national cable monopolist. Following multiple reports that regulators at the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) were poised to block its proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable (TWC), Comcast conceded defeat and abandoned the $45 billion deal.
This is a huge victory for consumers. I’ve maintained since the day the proposed deal was announced that combining America’s two largest cable providers would have been an anti-competitive, anti-consumer and anti-democracy. Despite my concerns, most industry watchers anticipated the FCC would allow the merger.
Why? Because too often, Big Cable and Big Telecom call their own shots. They donate heavily to politicians in both parties, and the FCC has historically done their bidding.
I was there for one of the agency’s worst decisions: its 2011 approval of Comcast’s takeover of NBC-Universal, the precursor to the Comcast-TWC proposal. In casting the lone FCC vote against that deal, I concluded that the merger of broadcast and broadband, medium and message, content and distribution was “simply too much, too big, too powerful and too lacking in benefits for American consumers and citizens.”
Apparently the staffs at both the FCC and the Department of Justice were disappointed with Comcast’s spotty compliance with the conditions it agreed to on the NBCU transaction. They surely must have asked themselves why they should trust Comcast now — when a Comcast-TWC merger would only make a bad situation even worse. A Mega-Comcast with control over more than 50 percent of the home broadband market would have stifled innovation and left consumers at the mercy of a behemoth. It was a deal America simply could not afford; despite the efficiencies of scale Comcast claimed the merger would provide, the company couldn’t guarantee that customer bills would go down, or even increase less rapidly than they already are.
All of this comes just two months after the FCC delivered historic Open Internet protections – the strongest yet – with safeguards extending to wireless connectivity for the first time. And as it made that move, the commission also eliminated anticompetitive barriers to broadband deployment erected by industry-friendly state legislators in North Carolina and Tennessee.
Now consumers can celebrate another victory. They and their allies in a coalition of reform organizations are largely responsible for putting the brakes on the Comcast-TWC deal. They’ve demonstrated that even in this era when big money and powerful corporations wield such outrageous power, genuine grassroots concern can still win out. It turns out that everyday citizens do care about communications policy and can still make good things happen.
I wish we could say the same about the majority in Congress. Unfortunately, Capitol Hill is awash with lawmakers who have built their careers around fealty to corporate interests and irrational antipathy to those charged with protecting the public interest. Just as the FCC — often rightly charged in the past with being captured by the businesses it’s supposed to regulate — seems at long last to be getting serious about its public interest responsibilities, many in Congress seem disconnected from their constituents and in thrall of their Big Cable and Big Telecom benefactors.
On so many issues, members of Congress have run interference for the special interests. Comcast and Time Warner invested some $25 million lobbying last year.While the public interest still has its champions in Congress, too many industry-pliant members threaten to overturn any good decision by the FCC. Chairman Tom Wheeler and his colleagues are summoned to hearing after endless hearing to be berated by the industry’s Republican allies and forced to endure threats to cut the agency’s funding and “reform” (read: strangle) its powers. A serious effort to accomplish positive FCC reforms would be laudable, but too often the objective is simply to gut the agency.
There’s a serious disconnect between too many members of Congress and the folks they’re supposed to be representing. The Open Internet is not a red-state/blue-state divide or a Republican vs. Democrat issue around the country. As many conservatives as liberals are opposed to allowing Internet service providers to create “fast lanes” for the few online. Similarly, consumers from neither party enjoy spiraling cable and broadband bills. In 2013 alone, the price of basic cable rose by 6.5 percent, four times the rate of inflation. Just think how bad it would be if industry forces prevailed and treated consumers to market monopolies across the country. (One reason the FCC and DOJ may have shown particular concern about the Comcast/TWC deal: Both companies rank at the bottom in consumer satisfaction surveys.)
Comcast’s withdrawal of the merger plan is wonderful news for consumers concerned about the abysmal state of competition and customer service in cable and broadband, and for citizens who have had enough of gatekeeping and consolidation in the communications infrastructure on which our civic dialogue and our democracy so heavily depend. Too bad too many in Congress are still so in thrall to the status quo.