Comcast and critics of the cable giant’s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable repeated familiar arguments in the final round of public comments before the FCC gets down to business in its review of the proposed $45 billion union of the nation’s top two cable operators.
Comcast issued a more than 50-page response to the reply comments that were filed with the FCC in September. Tuesday marked the deadline for public responses to the reply comments.
Merger foes maintain that the deal would give Comcast too much sway over the nation’s market for broadband service and give it too much clout in the media biz overall, as Comcast would be the nation’s largest MVPD by far and a top content owner through its NBCUniversal subsidiary.
There’s been much back and forth between the sides on an enlarged Comcast’s behind-the-scenes ability to dictate the flow of Internet traffic because its pipes serve up so many interconnection points for online distributors.
Comcast reiterated that the deal will not lessen competition for MVPD or broadband service in any markets as its current cable systems do not overlap with Time Warner Cable service in any states. Opponents have countered that the combined Comcast-TW Cable would control as much as 50% of the nation’s broadband market; Comcast puts the figure at 37%.
There’s also concern that Comcast would use its overall market heft to stifle the growth of fledgling online distributors by withholding NBCUniversal content from them or charging above-market fees. Comcast’s response remains that such moves would only hurt NBCU, just as its cable systems would lose customers if it refused to carry competitors’ channels.
In a post on Comcast’s corporate blog, Comcast exec VP David Cohen (pictured) again cited the competitive motivation for Comcast rivals to paint the merger as being bad for consumers.
“It is no surprise that various parties have attempted to use this review process to try to advance agendas they may have on industry-wide issues and air pre-existing grievances that are not related to this transaction,” Cohen wrote.
Moreover, in the filing Comcast accuses programmers of trying to take advantage of the review process. In an earlier filing, it characterized the effort as a form of extortion.
“Programmers, such as Discovery, RFD-TV, TheBlaze and Back9, (are) attempting to leverage the transaction-review process to obtain higher fees and terms they could not reasonably expect in the competitive marketplace – which would ultimately raise rates for consumers,” Comcast wrote.
Discovery Communications has been active in opposing the merger on Capitol Hill, but it did not file a new reply comment.
In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, members of the Stop Mega Comcast Coalition asserted their total opposition to the deal in any form, regardless of any conditions that could be imposed by the FCC or Justice Department.
“The divestitures would have to be the entire merger,” said George Slovis of Consumers Union, which is a member of the coalition. “I don’t see any remedy that would be sufficient to cure the problems with the merger.”
Dish Network, another coalition member, came up with 53 reasons why the merger would be bad for the media biz and for consumers in its reply comment filing.
Comcast’s filing includes a chart that lays out the concerns raised by opponents and the company’s responses. One issue that isn’t mentioned in the chart but is repeatedly cited by merger critics is the company’s handling of Bloomberg News. Bloomberg has waged a long battle with Comcast to have its business news channel located near NBCUniversal’s competing CNBC.
The “neighborhood” issue of channel placement was spelled out in the conditions placed on Comcast’s acquisition of NBCUniversal in 2011. But the cable giant still fought the issue of Bloomberg placement, so much so that the FCC issued a separate order to Comcast on the matter in September 2013.
Merger foes point to the Bloomberg battle as a sign that Comcast cannot be trusted to adhere to conditions placed on its actions by the feds, though Comcast execs are quick to point out that the company has fulfilled more than 150 other requirements that came with the FCC’s approval of the NBCU acquisition from General Electric.
The FCC had hoped to wrap up its review of the deal, which was unveiled in February, by early in 2015. But on Monday the commission once again stopped the 180-day time clock on the merger because of the recent discovery of 31,000 pages of documents relevant to the transaction. To give FCC staff time to review those pages, the time clock won’t be restarted until Jan. 12.