Lawmakers weigh in on Comcast-NBCU merger
Update: House hearing over, Senate hearing next
Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said he will offer NBC online content to competitors after the merger, despite concerns that the cable and Internet service giant would withhold that content to capture subscribers.
But Roberts didn't address concerns, including those by Colleen Abdoulah, president of WOW cable operator, that the combined company could impose restrictions or conditions on companies like hers to get those programs, channels and movies.
"“We will be well served to make content available to all the players in the marketplace,” Roberts said in the House hearing. “We want to see the content available and growing for the consumer."
Abdoulah said Comcast withheld online content from her company, a cable and Internet service provider in the midwest that competes directly with Comcast and NBC.
Mark Cooper, research director at Consumer Federal of America, said the merger has the risk of extending worrisome trends in the cable television market to the Web. He notes that the cable industry is highly concentrated (Comcast serves 24 million homes), and prices have consistently increased each year for subscribers.
He said there is no reason to believe that with a greater library of content from NBC, Comcast wouldn't use its growing vertical clout to push higher prices and bundled packages of programs on competitors who want that content.
"The merger has so many anticompetitive and anticonsumer implications that just can't be fixed with conditions," Cooper said.
Reps have given opening remarks and so far no one has expressed they think outright that the merger should be rejected. Everyone pretty much agrees that questions emerge over how the merger would affect consumer prices and access to information.
"After additional review, I’m even more certain this joint venture, if approved, could trigger dramatic changes in the way consumers access video programming, independent programmers distribute their work," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Commerce Committee. "Will competition be sustainable with the largest video and broadband provider controlling huge quantities of content?"
Some said they want to learn about how the merger would control access to information over the Internet.
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said the merger of the nation's biggest cable and Internet provider with the fourth-largest media company threatens open access of information for consumers.
"It has the potential to place a chokehold on the transfer of information to consumers today and well into future," she said. "This demonstrates why we need net neutrality across board."
Others balked at the suggestion of net neutrality conditions attached to the merger.
Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) made a thinly veiled warning:
The merger review "shouldn't be a vehicle to advance a single policy agenda," Mack said.
Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) was more direct:
"I hope for a quick review and approval. I believe the merger is in the public interest," he said. "I would strongly oppose any network neutrality conditions. To do so would be highly inappropriate."
February 4, 2010; 11:15 AM ET
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