Comcast’s plan to swallow its largest rival could affect the way Americans receive their internet for decades to come, but the cable giant doesn’t appear eager to discuss all that. Instead, it chose to talk about diversity on the last day of the public comment period on the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable.
“[T]his transaction will bring numerous public interest benefits to millions of residential and commercial customers, from faster internet speeds and greater programming diversity, to next-generation TV, more robust Wi-Fi,” wrote David Cohen, Comcast EVP and top lawyer, David Cohen, in a blog post.
Overall, Cohen’s post did little to address the antitrust concerns that alarm opponents of the merger, but focused on the “over 100 diversity groups and community partners” that have spoken favorably about Comcast during the comment period. Such groups, including the Black Chamber of Commerce of New York and the Latin American Association, have praised Comcast’s commitment to diversity — but are also regular beneficiaries of the company’s largesse in the form of charitable donations and outreach programs.
In total, more than 64,000 individuals, groups and companies have so far offered submissions in the public comment period, which will close Monday night after the FCC refused a request to extend the deadline. This means that the agency’s “timeline clock” will keep moving forward into the next part of a planned 180-day process in which the agency must decide if the merger would benefit the public.
For critics of the proposed deal, including Gigaom, the prime objection does not relate to diversity, nor to Comcast’s clout in the cable market — which is formidable, but is increasingly irrelevant at a time when the internet is replacing cable TV as the main source of entertainment and information. Instead, the critical issue for the FCC to examine is the power Comcast will have if it controls more than 35 percent of the broadband market (which is what it will get if it swallows Time Warner Cable.)
The consolidation in the broadband market that would take place with the Comcast merger could exacerbate a status quo in which many Americans have little or no choice in internet service providers. While Comcast has pointed to emerging “alternatives” like Google Fiber, these are hardly widespread and, as the Wall Street Journal reports, their business strategy relies on only offering service in places where it is easy and profitable to do so. This means that many people will have to depend on Comcast, which recently won another “golden poo” award for its customer service, to deliver essential internet.
The lack of choice among ISP’s, however, is only one of two major issues that should give the FCC pause in approving the deal. The other is the demise of “net neutrality” rules, which forbid broadband providers from favoring some types of internet content over another. This raises the prospect of a combined Comcast-Time Warner Cable giant providing faster access to preferred sites like NBC at the expense of others — while leaving frustrated consumers with no options to switch internet providers in protest. (For now, though, there is no risk of Comcast engaging in preferential treatment since, under the terms of its acquisition of FCC, the company agreed to abide by net neutrality principles until 2018).
Comcast’s lengthy blog post offered little in the way of response to such concerns. Instead, Cohen only used one paragraph to suggest (implausibly) that the growth of wireless service should mitigate the antitrust concerns over broadband:
A lot of attention has been paid to our share of the “national” broadband market, where there have been a lot of inaccurate assertions of our market share. We’ve demonstrated, relying on actual facts, that our post-transaction share of wired broadband connections is 35.5% based on the FCC’s most recent data. And this doesn’t even include the marketplace developments happening every day, including the growth of 4G/LTE connections. Include those, and our post-transaction market share would be a little over 15%.
The close of initial public comments will be followed by a period in which Comcast and the public can submit replies to the FCC until October.
The initial round of comments led people and companies to submit remarks about broadband and diversity, but also on the impact the proposed merger will have on programming costs for cable TV and, especially, how it will affect TV coverage in rural areas.
This story was updated at 5:50PM ET to reflect that Comcast has undertaken to abide by net neutrality principles until 2018.