The Fresno Bee
by Ben Benavidez and Orson Aguilar
The California Public Utilities Commission must act to stop the digital divide from getting worse by saying “no” to the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Any other move would only reduce competition, worsen service in the San Joaquin Valley and harm low-income consumers everywhere.
That’s unfortunate because, as Hugo Morales noted in his Bee commentary Feb. 24, conditions that the CPUC is considering attaching to any OK could do considerable good. Unfortunately, those conditions won’t solve the much larger problems the merger will cause, and Comcast’s track record makes it clear it will likely ignore most of them anyway. And neither the CPUC nor the public will be in a position to do much about it.
The commission’s proposed decision rightly notes that the merger would give the merged company unprecedented market power. As a result, it would subject customers to “poorer customer service, fewer service offerings, and fewer program choices” while causing Time Warner Cable customers to lose access to Time Warner Cable content and forcing them to live with Comcast’s famously terrible customer service.
Rather than bridging the digital divide, the merger would worsen it, creating permanent second-class service for low-income customers. Internet Essentials, Comcast’s nearly invisible program for low-income broadband customers, would be allowed to run at speeds far below the federal minimum standard for broadband service. Care for a ride on the back of the digital bus, anyone?
And while the proposed conditions seek to promote increased broadband service in underserved areas, the way they are worded provides no guarantee that any build-out of broadband infrastructure would actually reach working-class communities, farmworker communities and other low-income neighborhoods. Comcast could meet the conditions by adding broadband facilities in the Los Gatos hills or wealthy resort communities.
It gets worse. The first condition requires Comcast to offer LifeLine (discounted phone service for low-income customers) to all eligible customers in the new company’s service territory. Unfortunately, the CPUC can’t actually make Comcast offer LifeLine at all. Federal law allows companies to opt out of LifeLine in most circumstances, and consumer advocates like Consumers Union and The Greenlining Institute have pointed out that Comcast could do so immediately.
Overall, the conditions set excellent goals but give Comcast so much wiggle room that they would do very little to bridge the digital divide or otherwise to protect consumers from the power of the new communications behemoth the merger would create.
Bear in mind that Comcast has done huge mergers before, and we’ve seen how the company behaves. It simply ignores conditions it doesn’t like.
For example, when Comcast joined with NBC Universal, the Federal Communications Commission allowed the deal despite objections from consumer groups, but attached multiple conditions — that Comcast ignored.
The FCC required Comcast to “visibly offer and actively market” stand-alone broadband service (i.e. broadband not bundled with telephone or cable TV) for $50 a month for at least three years. The company largely ignored this pledge, failing to mention the service in customer mailings or offer it at retail locations.
It was listed on the company website, but buried in an obscure spot where customers had to hunt for it. Comcast eventually agreed to pay an $800,000 fine for these violations — pocket change for a company this large. And this isn’t an isolated incident; Comcast’s history of noncompliance is long indeed.
Even if the proposed conditions were adequate, there is no reason to believe Comcast will obey them, and little prospect that the CPUC will have the resources to investigate and punish violations. To protect consumers — and have any real chance of making broadband available and affordable to communities that need it — the CPUC should reject this merger entirely.