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Andrew Sullivan —  Feb 14 2014 @ 2:58pm

 

Daniel Gross explains the news of Comcast trying to buy Time Warner Cable for $45.2 billion as “a defensive move—on the part of both companies”:

[T]he big cable companies have been losing customers and market share for years. According to the National Cable Television Association, there were 56.4 million cable subscribers in 2012, down from 66.9 million in 2001. Time Warner, which is concentrated in savvy, wealthy markets like Los Angeles and New York, has been hit particularly hard.  As I noted It’s cable business is eroding like a New Jersey beach. In each of the last seven quarters, Time Warner Cable has lost a significant number of residential video subscribers—a total of 1.27 million subscribers, or nearly 10 percent. That’s pretty stunning.

Now, rapid growth in the other components of the triple play—high-speed internet and voice service—has helped mask the decline of Time Warner Cable’s core business. But those services cost less than cable. And in the most recent quarter, it looks as if those numbers barely budged.

Susan Crawford doesn’t like the deal:

The reason this deal is scary is that for the vast majority of businesses in 19 of the 20 largest metropolitan areas in the country, their only choice for a high-capacity wired connection will be Comcast. Comcast, in turn, has its own built-in conflicts of interest:

It will be serving the interests of its shareholders by keeping investments in its network as low as possible — in particular, making no move to provide the world-class fiber-optic connections that are now standard and cheap in other countries — and extracting as much rent as it can, in all kinds of ways. Comcast, for purposes of today’s public , is calling itself a “cable company.” It no longer is. Comcast sells infrastructure subject to neither competition nor a cop on the beat.

Judis is on the same page:

Monopolies make it more difficult for new entrants to compete. As a result, they allow the larger companies to raise prices without fearing a loss of market share. Since deregulation in 1996, cable prices have risen at about three times the rate of inflation. According to a study from the Free Press, prices for expanded cable service (what most consumers purchase) went up five percent from 2008 top 2013 –almost four times the rate of inflation. Monopolies also allow companies to neglect service to consumers. The American Customer Satisfaction Index rated Comcast and Time-Warner the two worst cable and broadband companies.

Monopolies can also have a corrosive effect on related industries. The big cable companies have been able to squeeze cable content providers—even to cut off access to customers, as Time-Warner did with CBS last fall.  If they also own content providers, as Comcast does, they can harm rival content providers—as Comcast seems to be doing to Netflix.

John Cassidy dismisses the “old and tired argument” that Netflix and Apple are threatening the cable business:

I’ve been writing about the cable industry since the late nineteen-eighties, and something has always been about to destroy it. For a time, the threat was satellite television; then it was the Web; now it’s Netflix or YouTube. But it never materializes. With their quasi-monopoly franchises, and the ability to charge their customers for everything from voice mail to remote controls—look closely at your cable bill—the cable companies get bigger and more profitable every year. No wonder Comcast’s stock price has quintupled since 2009. (Time Warner Cable’s stock has gone up even more.)

What we need is a new competition policy that puts the interests of consumers first, seeks to replicate what other countries have done, and treats with extreme skepticism the arguments of monopoly incumbents such as Comcast and Time Warner Cable. But will we get it?

Morrissey wonders if the government will allow the deal to go through:

Then there is the question of Comcast’s connections to content producers. Comcast owns NBC, for instance, a deal that raised a few eyebrows but still managed to gain regulatory approval. Its size would make them much more competitive on pricing over Charter and Cox, and that plus their hold on NBC’s assets might be just a little too much for the White House to ignore, even for the politically-connected Comcast. This has anti-trust written all over it, especially for Democrats who have played the populist-progressive card more and more.

But Matthew Klein claims the merger will be good for consumers:

The networks consistently raise prices about 10 percent a year on average, irrespective of the state of the economy. By contrast, the typical cable bill only goes up by about 5 percent a year. Cable companies have eaten the difference by lowering their margins and cutting costs elsewhere, but there are limits to both processes. … Merging the two biggest cable operators might give them more bargaining power with the networks, especially if it encourages DIRECTV and Dish Network Corp. to consolidate the satellite business. Saving money on content would allow the enlarged Comcast to improve Internet access and speed — areas in which the U.S. lags behind other rich nations.

Drum quibbles with Klein’s argument:

I’d normally take Klein’s side of this except for one thing: would a bigger Comcast really have more negotiating clout than they do now? I guess that’s possible, but they have a helluva lot of clout already. No network can afford to be shut out of Comcast’s market for long. So it’s not clear to me that a bigger Comcast would really do much for the rest of us.

Brian Fung puts the merger in context:

All of this is taking place against the backdrop of the recent net neutrality court decision that made it legal for Internet providers to block or throttle Web traffic. While there’s no concrete evidence yet that this is occurring, the ruling inherently gives ISPs such as Comcast greater control over how consumers experience the Internet. As a result of the merger, Comcast will be taking on 8 million TWC subscribers, all of whom will be newly subject to Comcast’s bandwidth policies.

That the cable industry is consolidating isn’t really a surprise. But a merger of this magnitude is going to have major downstream effects.

It could also lead to new, cumbersome regulations:

There’s a danger that Comcast will be able to use its growing power over broadband to undermine competitive threats such as Netflix. We don’t know exactly how large Comcast needs to be before it will be able to do this. But the larger it gets, the greater the cause for concern. And it’s much easier to block a merger before it happens than to seek the breakup of a company after it has merged.

Lastly, Sargent weighs the options for better telecom regulation:

There are two basic solutions to this problem: either run telecoms as a regulated monopoly, like how land lines used to work, or break up the telecom trusts within individual markets to force them to compete with each other. Both have upsides and downsides, but the point is that government action will be required either way. This is another reason to keep prevent pointless mergers — to level the power imbalance between regulators and colossal corporate conglomerates.

This will be a tough lift, but I think it’s still possible to do. Telecom capacity is relatively cheap, by infrastructure standards — and for Pete’s sake, Romania somehow manages to have the third-fastest internet in the world. It’s easily within reach, if we can get our act together. It should be a key goal of progressive lawmakers.