The door to comment on the proposed Comcast-Time Warner merger has closed ... or not. FCC chief Tom Wheeler is reportedly inviting media companies that didn't speak publicly, for fear of retaliation, to come in and gripe privately about their dealings with Comcast -- a move that predictably has the cable company steamed. To further fan the fires, the chairman spoke out forcefully Thursday on the need for faster, better Internet connections and strongly decried decreasing competitive choice in broadband.
Wheeler finds himself at the center of a vortex of politically charged issues and, ultimately, approval of the merger could be tied to other issues before the FCC, namely expansion of community broadband and support for Net neutrality.
Debate over the merger has created strange bedfellows, with liberal Sen. Al Franken and conservative commentator Glenn Beck both voicing their opposition. Meanwhile, Chicago mayor and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel says he believes the merger would be good for consumers. It hasn't been bad for his campaign coffers: Emanuel has received more than $100,000 from Comcast and its employees, in one sample of the largesse for which the cable company is famous.
While opposition to the merger appears widespread, Paul Gallant, managing director of telecom research at Guggenheim Partners told the Washington Post this week, "I still suspect the merger will be approved. It doesn't seem to trip any antitrust wires, and merger conditions would let the FCC push various Internet policies it cares about."
Setting aside legitimate fears that "the consolidation of the largest cable television providers would create a media juggernaut that would stifle competition and hurt consumers who would ultimately pay higher prices for even worse service," the question becomes, what kinds of strings are likely to be attached to FCC approval of the deal?
When Comcast acquired NBC Universal in 2011, it was required by regulators to be legally bound by full Net neutrality rules until 2018. New York's state public service commission, which has been conducting its own review of the proposed merger, has recommended to the FCC that Comcast's commitment to Net neutrality be extended by another two years.
The media organizations meeting privately with the FCC are expected to ask for conditions as well. According to the Wall Street Journal, high on that list are the "most-favored nation" clauses (also described as "schmuck insurance") that guarantee powerful providers like Comcast get the industry's best deals. One executive told the WSJ that "the entire landscape is booby-trapped" with those agreements.
Comcast is the country's largest cable company and Time Warner is No. 2, so competition is clearly a hot-button issue. When it comes to the ISP market, Wheeler has previously indicated his willingness to intervene and preempt state laws that ban community broadband, arguing that the laws have destroyed telecom competition.
Speaking at an event on the future of broadband on Thursday, Wheeler said that "meaningful competition for high-speed wired broadband is lacking and Americans need more competitive choices for faster and better Internet connections, both to take advantage of today's new services, and to incentivize the development of tomorrow's innovations."
The speech is unlikely to go down well with cable companies such as AT&T, which in a filing with the FCC last week protested that local organizations should not receive tax breaks to build community broadband networks because it would create a "non-level playing field."
"You almost have to admire AT&T's chutzpah in saying that, given the concessions they wrung out of communities over the years for promised AT&T broadband deployments that never even materialized," Lauren Weinstein, a veteran tech policy expert who supports community broadband initiatives, told Motherboard.
Last month Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) urged Wheeler to use the FCC's authority to remove roadblocks to community broadband. Netflix added its support this week in a filing that called on the agency to free up local governments to extend their own high-speed Internet services to areas that are unserved or underserved by private broadband providers.
In his speech Thursday, Wheeler acknowledged that "Americans living in urban areas are three times more likely to have access to high-speed broadband than Americans living in rural areas. As bandwidth needs increase, we cannot tolerate the broadband digital divide getting larger."
After stating that the FCC will work to protect competition "where it exists," Wheeler went on:
Where meaningful competition is not available, the Commission will work to create it.... And where competition cannot be expected to exist, we must shoulder the responsibility of promoting the deployment of broadband. ...As we have seen, there is an inverse relationship between competition and the kind of broadband performance that consumers are increasingly demanding. This is not tolerable.
Talk like that is unlikely to win Wheeler friends among cable companies, but perhaps consumers will have a champion at the FCC after all.
This article, "FCC chairman steps up for citizens, competition, and a better Internet," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.