Opposition has until Feb. 4 to log positions

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission has started the clock on the hotly debated EchoStar and DirecTV merger review, setting dates for public comments.

Those opposing the $26 billion deal have until Feb. 4 to log their position with the agency, the FCC announced Friday. Advocates of the landmark deal, which would unite the country’s two largest direct satcasters, must file their replies by Feb. 25.

The FCC launched the 180-day review process Friday, although the clock can be stopped if there is a particular holdup. The AOL Time Warner merger review took almost a year, with the timer stalled at several points along the way.

Rural monopoly

As with AOL TW, the proposed EchoStar and DirecTV merger has generated enormous attention. Consumer advocates and some Capitol Hill pols say the deal will form a monopoly in rural areas where TV viewers have no access to cable.

The merger must be approved by both the FCC and by antitrust chiefs at the Dept. of Justice. The DOJ review, unlike that of the FCC, is not public.

Last week, 86 congressional lawmakers representing rural areas sent letters to Attorney General John Ashcroft and FCC chair Michael Powell urging that they rigorously scrutinize the proposed merger before signing off.

Protective pricing plan

Responding to the solons, EchoStar topper Charlie Ergen and DirecTV topper Doug Hartenstein said in a statement they have every intention of protecting rural customers, and they raised the idea of a national pricing plan.

“This pricing structure extends the benefits of competing with cable companies in urban areas to those who live in the most remote areas,” the statement said.

Last week’s news that Comcast would merge with AT&T Broadband turned out to be a boon for Ergen, who’s now arguing that the cabler mega-merger is further reason why his bid for DirecTV should be cleared. Ergen says there is no way his company can compete with the cable might of an AT&T Comcast.

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