Los Angeles Sentinel
by Gail Berkley

The proposed $45 billion Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger was alternately blasted and supported by over two dozen speakers at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) hearing held last Wednesday in San Francisco.

In a lengthy public comment portion of the meeting, representatives of non-profits serving African Americans and other people of color, chambers of commerce, consumer advocacy and media groups from throughout the state weighed in on the merits of the proposed merger. If approved, Comcast will be the dominant internet and Cable-TV provider in the state with 1.8 million Cable TV subscribers in the Los Angeles region alone.

On February 13, Administrative Law Judge Karl J. Bemesderfer recommended that the CPUC vote to approve the merger, if Comcast would agree to a set of conditions aimed at assuring that the proposed merger is in the publics best interest.

Speakers in support of Comcast at the CPUC included, Dr. Amos Brown, president of the San Francisco Branch of the NAACP, Lisa Williams, State Education chairperson for Black Women Organized for Political Action and Diane Gray, a member of the San Francisco Alliance of Black School Educators.

Dr. Brown, Williams, Gray and other speakers from Asian and Latino organizations praised Comcast’s support of their organizations’ events and initiatives via corporate sponsorship dollars. Brown said Comcast has been a worthy corporate citizen and “has been about spreading enrichment with underserved communities.”

Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, designed to help close the digital divide by providing low cost internet service to low income families with school aged children also drew wide support from African American speakers and others representing Latinos, Asians and immigrant communities.

One of Judge Bemesderfer recommendations was that Comcast agree to offer its $9.95-a-month Internet Essentials program to eligible low-income families within its proposed new service area in Southern California. Comcast would have to provide service to 45% of the targeted low-income homes within two years after absorbing Time Warner Cable systems.

Those opposed to the merger say it will create a monopoly and will stifle competition in the lucrative video industry.

A spokesperson for the Writers Guild of America West, representing 8000 writers of feature films, TV and net content, said the proposed merger would harm its membership  and consumers and limit opportunities for  upstream content makers to tell diverse and unique stories.

Those concerns were echoed recently in a $20 billion lawsuit filed by Producer Byron Allen’s Entertainments Studios and the National Alliance of African American Owned Media against Comcast, Time Warner Cable, The Rev. Al Sharpton, the NAACP and the National Urban League.

The discrimination lawsuit filed in Los Angeles federal court on February 20, alleges that Allen’s company which includes such digital channels as Justice Central, Cars.TV and Comedy.TV, .has been denied the ability to get distribution on cable systems owned by Comcast and Time Warner. Rev.  Sharpton who hosts a television program on Comcast’s owned CNBC, the NAACP and the Urban League were all named as defendants in the lawsuit because they’ve all received contributions from Comcast, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Comcast said the suit contains “inflammatory, inaccurate and unsupported allegations,” Comcast stated is and Sharpton’s National Action Network called it “frivolous.”

Speaking Wednesday against the approval of the merger with the proposed conditions, Stephanie Chen of The Greenlining Institute said, “The conditions set forth do not fully erase the harm they are proposed to address. One company will have more than 80% of the state’s consumers. “Diversity matters,” Chen said adding that the customer privacy conditions are not strong enough.

She said the CPUC does not have the resources to enforce the proposed conditions and, “we do not support the provision of second class services to the underserved. This provision does not close the digital divide.

Chen noted, “Comcast’s community organization work and partnerships should continue whether or not the merger is approved.”

Speakers from Consumers Union’s West Coast Division, Media Alliance in Oakland and the Joint Minority Parties also spoke in opposition to the merger. According to the Joint Minority Parties spokesperson, Comcast has one of the worst percent for supplier diversity, and African American business received only 0.4% of $23 million in supplier diversity funds.

Ms. Toler ,speaking for  Comcast and Time Warner Cable, told the CPUC the merger is in the public interest. She noted that if approved consumers will enjoy faster internet speeds, businesses will benefit from a broader reach, Comcast’s nationally acclaimed Internet Essentials program will be expanded and its commitment to supplier diversity will be extended.

Comcast proposed the $45 billion merger with Time Warner Cable last year. Currently the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice are considering approval of the merger, with FCC vote expected by the end of March.

The CPUC will take up the matter again in March.