Editorial: Comcast-Time Warner’s unholy mega media union

If you hate your cable company – and, really, who doesn’t? – then get ready to loathe the $45 billion merger of Comcast and Time Warner announced last week.

Not because it limits direct competition. If only. That battle was lost long ago. Sacramentans, like all Americans, live under strict cable TV/Internet monopolies as it is; our choices are Comcast or, well, Comcast, though satellite providers and AT&T do carve out smaller shares in this region.

No, what’s troubling about the prospect of the nation’s two largest telecommunication operators melding into a single media megalith is the power it concentrates in just a few hands – the power to decide what we view, when we view it and how we view it; the power to shut out content providers the company doesn’t like or those that are direct competitive threats; the power to charge more money but provide less service; and, most worrisome of all, the power to exert a chokehold on our open Internet.

To put it simply, the prospect for cable consumers is this: “Higher prices; worse service,” as Sen. Al Franken summarized the deal to a CNN reporter Thursday. He was not joking.

When federal regulators and lawmakers – including Sacramento Rep. Doris Matsui, who is a member of the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee – assess the merger proposal in coming months, they should apply a broader test than the traditional definitions of competition. But more important, they should consider the potential threat this deal may have on the nation’s broadband Internet users.

Together, Comcast and Time Warner serve about a third of the entire U.S. market, about 33 million subscribers. California is a big piece of the pie, including most of its major cities and 3.7 million Internet subscribers, or about a quarter of the state’s households, according to Sunne McPeak, president and CEO of the California Emerging Technology Fund.

McPeak is worried about this deal, not because she fears “Duck Dynasty” might be squeezed off the air. She’s been fighting to bridge the digital divide in California, about 25 percent of the population of the state. This will not help her cause, as the two companies have dismal track records reaching and serving low-income or immigrant residents.

“In California and across the nation, Comcast has reached less than 10 percent of eligible participants because they have not made sufficient investment in community partners to inform consumers,” McPeak said in a statement. “Time Warner has an even more embarrassing performance … far below 1 percent.”

For consumers, the real threat is that the Comcast-Time Warner overlords will start to exert control what streams through their cables. These aren’t just the paranoid fantasies of those who have watched “The Matrix” a few too many times. Comcast and Time Warner have been involved in efforts to subvert content to their customers.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has accused Comcast of squeezing streamed Netflix content. It’s hard to prove, but many of Comcast’s customers have reported odd streaming hiccups when they watch Netflix that don’t occur to other media sources.

And the Time Warner blackout of CBS and Showtime last fall in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York was well documented. The two companies were wrangling over transmission fees.

This doesn’t bode well for good service. When the Federal Communications Commission evaluates whether this deal is in the public’s best interest, it must use this as an opportunity to truly represent customers, not act as the rubber stamp for the telecom industry as it did under former Chairman Michael Powell. It’s not incidental that Powell is now the president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.

The commission’s task is all the more crucial in the wake of last month’s ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals striking down the FCC’s regulations that sought to guarantee Internet neutrality. That means the cable companies already have too much power to block some information sources from the Net. They must not be given more power to do so.