Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti says that the FCC’s review of the proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger should examine “real world problems like the Dodgers dispute,” in which more than 60% of the city’s residents do not have access to watch the hometown team’s games.
“As part of its investigation as to whether the merger and increased concentration will serve the public interest, we ask the Commission to examine these types of programming disputes, determine why the problem has not been resolved already, and then ask Comcast to show that the merger would alleviate, and not exacerbate, problems of this sort,” Garcetti wrote in comments submitted to the FCC on Monday, the deadline for an initial round of public filings on the merger.
Last year, TW Cable bought exclusive rights to the Dodgers that included the launch of a new regional sports network, SportsNet LA. But much of the market has been left without any availability of the channel as distributors like DirecTV have balked. They say that the price TW Cable is asking is too high as it tries to cover the cost it paid for the rights, reportedly $8 billion.
“This is not a healthy situation for the community,” Garcetti wrote. “The Dodgers are a key part of the fabric of this city, and Dodgers games with the legendary Vin Scully in the broadcast booth have traditionally been available to viewers throughout the region at no extra charge. That is not true this year.”
After complaints from lawmakers, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler recently sought information from TW Cable on the dispute and the nature of the negotiations with other distributors.
In his letter, Garcetti wrote that given the “dominant position” that Comcast will have in “almost every major metropolitan market in the United States,” the FCC should consider whether the company should be able to obtain exclusive rights to critical programming, as well as rights across multiple platforms. He asked whether “some mechanism can be developed that ensures that competitors can obtain access at reasonable prices.”
Garcetti’s filing also addressed a host of other concerns about the transaction. Nevertheless, like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, he did not call for the FCC to reject the merger.
“Comcast, through NBCUniversal and its broadcast properties, has a direct ability (via carriage on cable systems, via the Internet, and over-the air) to compete with TWC in the City today,” Garcetti wrote. “The transaction as currently proposed will provide Comcast with even greater vertical control over the assets used today for the distribution of television and online programming.”
He did praise Comcast for investments in local news at Telemundo 52 and KNBC, as well as a cooperative arrangement with public radio station KPCC.
But he called on the FCC to consider a number of conditions, including:
— Internet access. Garcetti called for Comcast to make its Internet Essentials program — $9.95-per-month service aimed at low-income customers — available to anyone. He argues that the program so far has “not worked well,” with “too many hoops in the application process and conditions on the service.”
“While we understand that the company would want to limit eligibility for the service to those who are not current subscribers to Comcast services, or who are low income, if the company offers other alternative services at reasonable prices, there should be little concern that customers will shift to a lower speed option,” Garcetti wrote.
Garcetti also called for expansion of the areas where Comcast provides free Internet services, like high-speed connections to libraries, schools and community centers. He also said that Internet Essentials upstream and downstream speeds should increase over time, and that it should include a Wi-Fi component.
—Net neutrality. The open Internet conditions placed on Comcast’s merger with NBC Universal in 2011 should be “extended indefinitely,” Garcetti wrote. He also said that if Comcast is permitted to create a “special path” to consumers — such as those via the X1 box — they should not be open only to content and applications favored by the company.
He also wrote that the FCC needs to address the whole issue of “interconnection,” or the fees that Comcast charges for such content providers like Netflix to connect to their network.
—Customer service. Garcetti wrote that there is a “real risk that this transaction will lead to worse customer service” if service centers are cut after the merger. He called for the company to maintain the current level of employment for at least 24 months. He said the company should increase its customer service transparency, by posting call wait times, outages, wait times and other metrics online.
Garcetti also said that Comcast should double broadband speeds within two years, but with prices “consistent with prices in competitive markets.”
—Local programming. The Los Angeles mayor said that public, educational and governmental channels should be treated the same way that Comcast treats a broadcast station, including making them available in SD and HD as well as other platforms. He also wrote that the city should have more flexbility in how it uses funding for such programming, provided in part by cable operator fees. The city of Los Angeles sued TW Cable in March, claiming that the cable operator owes millions in franchise fees.
Garcetti’s letter is here.