Comcast + TWC = (Partly) good for us, lousy for U.S.

PHOTOS: ASSOCIATED PRESS Philly-based Comcast has plans to get bigger . . .
PHOTOS: ASSOCIATED PRESS Philly-based Comcast has plans to get bigger . . .
Posted: February 14, 2014

IT WAS JUST a couple of days ago that I read an alarming allegation about Philadelphia's largest corporation, Comcast. In different corners of America, customers of the nation's largest cable and Internet provider were reporting the same problems loading and watching movies on Netflix. (And right when the new season of "House of Cards" is looming? Are you kidding me?)

The customers all voiced the same concern that Comcast - with its own movie-on-demand service that (poorly) competes with Netflix - wants to throttle its rival and speed up growth of its own service.

After all, just last month a court struck down a key FCC rule that had protected "net neutrality" - the notion that cable providers should treat all websites equally and not play favorites or, potentially in the case of Comcast and Netflix, un-favorites.

Now Comcast has completely denied that throttling of Netflix is happening (despite Netflix confirming the slower speeds), and with good reason, as it promised federal regulators that it would honor net neutrality through 2018 as part of winning approval to swallow NBCUniversal.

I don't know the reality of what's happening (ask me after I try to binge-watch "House of Cards" over my Comcast Internet this weekend), but I do know that our fears are very, very legitimate: In any era when access to digital information is essential to citizenship, there is great danger in concentrating too much power over that information in one corporation.

Then in the snowy dead of Wednesday night, we learned that this is exactly what is happening, that Comcast is gobbling up its biggest competitor, Time Warner Cable. The $45.2 billion deal - if approved by regulators - will make No. 1 Comcast even more No. 1, adding 8 million more TV subscribers in markets including New York and Los Angeles, bringing its total to 30 million households.

Comcast executive and longtime Philly political player David L. Cohen conceded that the deal "may sound scary," while his boss, Brian Roberts, is sticking to his story that this is "pro-consumer" because Comcast and TWC aren't in overlapping markets and because the behemoth will be able to offer new services.

But we'll go with "scary" for now.

Look, here's the thing: In some ways, it's hard to deny that a bigger and stronger Comcast brings certain benefits to Philadelphia. The massive headquarters it built and the new tower it's about to build (which we at Attytood call "The Bird" because it looks like it's flipping off West Philly) have been a very real source of civic self-esteem, but more importantly, jobs, with Comcast planning to hire as many as 1,500 people for the new tower, many of them in high-tech.

But Philadelphians are also American consumers - and this is a bad deal for anyone who uses cable or the Internet, which is pretty much everyone. In other words, this giant merger is only partly good for Philadelphia, but bad for America.

Craig Aaron, CEO of the liberal media-watchdog group Free Press, said the proposed Comcast-Time Warner deal would combine two companies with lousy track records for customer service into one monster with enormous capacity to raise your cable or Internet bills and control what information you receive. Said Aaron: "Americans already hate dealing with the cable guy - and both these giant companies regularly rank among the worst of the worst in consumer surveys. But this deal would be the cable guy on steroids - pumped up, unstoppable and grasping for your wallet."

"This is so over the top that it ought to be dead on arrival at the FCC," Michael Copps, a former FCC commissioner and now adviser to the public-interest group Common Cause, told Variety yesterday. "The proposed deal runs roughshod over competition and consumer choice and is an affront to the public interest."

But can the FCC and other regulators even be trusted to look at this deal fairly? The Republic Report notes that the recently installed head of the Department of Justice's antitrust division, William Baer, worked as a lawyer to push through the Comcast-NBCUniversal deal, and that one of four commissioners on the Federal Trade Commission, which oversees antitrust enforcement, recently performed legal work for Comcast. Of course, the regulators' nominal boss, President Obama, has been known to play a round of golf with his donor, Comcast CEO Roberts, and Comcast's Cohen has hosted fundraisers for Obama at his home in Chestnut Hill.

I know, I know . . . business as usual - but when is the business as usual going to stop and the American consumer going to get a break? This type of crony capitalism stinks to high heaven, and is exactly why the Obama administration - no matter how much it's in the tank for Comcast now - needs to grow a backbone and reject this.

There's no greater threat to American democracy in 2014 than the concentration of too much power in too few megacorporations, even one that gives the Philly skyline a nice skyscraper or two. (Remember: As soon as Comcast got its tax-break-supported town in Center City, it crushed mandatory paid sick leave that would have been a boon to the city's working poor.)

This could be where it stops. I'm sure that the "House of Cards" fictional backroom backstabber Frances Underwood would know how to kill this merger. Hopefully we'll gain some insight this weekend - at least when our screens are not buffering.

On Twitter: @Will_Bunch


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