One year ago, Comcast, the largest cable provider in the country announced it would buy Time Warner Cable, the nation’s second largest cable provider, in a deal valued at $45 billion. Not since AT&T tried to scoop up T-Mobile had a communications deal rallied consumers and activists to a cause in such a huge way. At the time, the deal was perceived to be a mistake, but something that would likely pass muster with regulatory agencies. However, a year in, things have changed.
When it was announced, we argued that the deal was about achieving broadband dominance, noting that even if Comcast pledged to reduce its pay TV customers by ditching subscribers in select markets to reduce its overall pay TV market share to below 30 percent, judging the deal by television standards was looking into the past. This deal wasn’t about TV, it was about controlling the only pipe that mattered, which in this case was the coaxial cable that brought broadband into the home.
With that, Comcast already offers on-demand video, voice, home alarm and automation services and even could one day offer mobile if it wants to get aggressive as its cable colleague Cablevision has done. A year ago, regulators and even the mainstream media seemed fixated on the value of television and what this deal would mean for media companies, cable TV customers and the like. But in a year, that too has changed.
Streaming media has become more popular. Live TV viewing was down by 12.7 percent in January this year compared to the year before. HBO plans to launch a stand alone streaming service this year as does Nickelodeon.
As television follows voice over to broadband, more of the industry recognizes that pay TV — where the combined Comcast and Time Warner cable would hold less than 30 percent of the market share after the deal closes — means little. They are taking a closer look at the broadband market where the combined entity would hold about 35 percent of the market. That number is even higher — as high as 55 percent under a new definition of broadband that the FCC approved in January that defines the service as at least 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream.
BTIG Tech and Media Analyst Rich Greenfield has pointed out that because the FCC has shifted its perspective on broadband being of greater importance than television (because TV is increasingly reliant on broadband) and because the post-merger Comcast would have such a dominant position providing the faster speeds necessary to deliver high quality television services over broadband, the deal is unlikely to pass. He wrote on February 4:
Over time, the fear is that Comcast will favor its own IP-delivered video services versus third parties, similar to how it is able to offer Comcast IP-based video services as a “managed” service that does not count against bandwidth caps, while third-party OTT services that look similar count against bandwidth caps (remember this Hastings/Roberts debate from 2012, link). As we see a rapid rise in niche, OTT subscription services and virtual MVPDs, the natural inclination will be for the incumbent video provider to protect their business (think usage based caps that only apply to outsiders, peering/interconnection fees, etc.).[/blockquote]
Since then the FCC has only become more bold in what is indicative of perhaps the most important change that has occurred in the year since the merger was announced. The FCC has stepped up as a force for consumer advocacy when it comes to broadband competition and access. The agency, which has acted as a rubber stamp at worst and as a priggish scold doing little more than wagging a finger at the industry when it steps too far out of line at best, has changed.
That is the change that has thrown the deal into the most doubt. Last week the FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed reclassifying broadband under Title II of the Communications Act in an about face for the agency that has been five years in the making. By classifying cable, DSL, wireless and other broadband services as transport rather than information , Wheeler subjects them to greater FCC authority and allows the agency to place strong network neutrality rules on providers — rules the ISPs were trying to avoid.
And while AT&T and now the National Cable and Telecommunications Association has threatened to sue if the agency passes those new rules, the markets are concerned that this newly brazen FCC has recognized the importance of broadband. And with this recognition that broadband is an essential service that could be better in parts of the U.S., as well as the recognition that the Comcast and Time Warner deal is really about broadband, the markets are concerned that regulators at the FCC and the Department of Justice may stop the deal.
They should. In a year a lot has changed. But here at Gigaom we have seen that change coming for almost a decade. We have argued for faster broadband, more competition, network neutrality and an elimination of broadband data caps. Because we are aware that broadband is platform on which our current innovations spring, and if we hand Comcast control 55 percent of the U.S. broadband market, even with the strong network neutrality rules that the agency has proposed, we are handing the future of half of our nation’s households to a company that has shown a willingness to invest in the future so far as it immediately benefits its bottom line.
Comcast doesn’t believe in disruption from startups. It believes in squashing them using its enormous market power and networks. It understands that it has to continue investing in new products and builds very good ones; its Xfinity home products are well designed and have a nice interface. But it’s not going to push pricing down. It’s not going to disrupt its business models and it’s certainly not going to change the way it treats its customers once it has more power.
A lot has changed in a year, but Comcast hasn’t. Is the federal government finally ready to show that it understands what’s at stake?