Skip to main content

Say NO to the Comcast takeover

By Al Franken
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sen. Franken says pending merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable is bad for America
  • The two biggest cable companies, he argues, have already carved country into local monopolies
  • Franken: Takeover could negatively impact Internet access; Comcast controls much of broadband market

Editor's note: Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, has been in the U.S. Senate since 2009 and serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee. You can follow him on Twitter @alfranken . Franken will be a guest on CNN'S Reliable Sources, Sunday morning at 11 a.m. ET. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?

I certainly am; that's why I oppose this deal. And I'm not alone.

More than 100,000 people -- including many from my own state of Minnesota -- have written to me expressing frustration that they are already paying significantly higher prices for increasingly poor cable and broadband service. Many note that they are unable to get a better deal because, where they live, there is only one viable option (in Minnesota, it's usually Comcast). And they worry that this deal will only make things worse.

Comcast takes merger case to Washington

Comcast dismisses these concerns by pointing out that it does not directly compete with Time Warner Cable in any zip code -- as if that's supposed to reassure us.

Al Franken
Al Franken

But the fact that the two biggest cable companies have already effectively managed to carve the country up into local monopolies shouldn't make us feel any better about their plan to become one giant company. Indeed, it's a clear sign that the cable market needs more competition, not less.

As for satellite TV and wireless Internet providers -- which Comcast would have you believe are forcing it and Time Warner Cable to band together in an uphill battle for survival -- they simply don't represent real competition.

Comcast grilled in Senate over merger plans

You can get your TV from a satellite provider, but it usually won't come with high-speed broadband Internet. And wireless Internet is not a viable substitute for broadband -- particularly if you want to watch TV online.

Essentially, if you want both TV service and high-speed Internet, you are stuck with a big cable and broadband company like Comcast or Time Warner Cable -- "or" being the appropriate preposition here, because, as Comcast brags, many Americans already have just one of these companies to choose from where they live. And if this deal goes through, Comcast will become the only option for millions more consumers.

The danger in allowing Comcast to accrue even more power is not purely hypothetical. The company is already using its dominant position to dictate terms to content providers seeking to reach its 20 million customers.

Comcast-Netflix deal good for customers?
FCC commissioner on latest Comcast deal
The monster Comcast deal

Take Netflix, for example. Comcast, which happens to have a rival video streaming service of its own, was able to exploit Netflix's growing popularity by refusing to provide the network infrastructure needed to keep Netflix streaming smoothly.

In the end, Netflix had to pay Comcast an undisclosed amount of money to get direct access to Comcast's broadband network and alleviate the slowdown.

As Netflix CEO Reed Hastings wrote, "Some big ISPs are extracting a toll because they can -- they effectively control access to millions of consumers and are willing to sacrifice the interests of their own customers to press Netflix and others to pay."

"Extracting a toll" is a polite way of putting it; this is nothing short of extortion. And acquiring Time Warner Cable would give Comcast millions more customers to use as leverage.

If Comcast is able to effectively charge popular providers extra for access to broadband customers, those costs will inevitably be passed on to consumers themselves. And if Comcast is able to determine what traffic can make it into consumers' homes, content not owned by Comcast could become harder to find online.

When the Senate Judiciary Committee recently met to review the proposed acquisition, Comcast -- which is represented by 107 lobbyists, including several who have passed through the ever-revolving door between the company and the agencies charged with regulating it -- promised to forgo such behavior.

But the company's own actions have already proven that such promises are not to be believed.

For example, three years ago, when Comcast announced plans to acquire NBC Universal, I and others raised concerns about vertical integration: Comcast already owned the pipes through which cable programming flowed, and now it would own NBC Universal's programming, including NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, Bravo, Telemundo, and others -- more than 20 networks in all.

Fortune: Blocking Comcast-TWC will not fix America's Internet monopoly

As a nod to these concerns, the Federal Communications Commission required as a condition of the deal that Comcast "neighborhood" -- or group -- cable channels into categories, so that programming not owned by Comcast wouldn't be relegated to the far reaches of the dial where viewers would be unlikely to find it.

But once the acquisition went through, Comcast didn't comply with this condition. It refused to put rival Bloomberg News in the same "neighborhood" as its own news channels, MSNBC and CNBC -- a textbook example of the kind of anti-competitive behavior we warned about, and in which Comcast promised not to engage.

As another condition, Comcast was told by the FCC to create a stand-alone broadband product -- one that wasn't bundled with a cable TV package -- so that people who wanted to ditch their cable plans in favor of online services like Hulu and Netflix would have an option.

Indeed, Comcast did create such a product. One small problem: It failed to tell customers about it. And after receiving complaints, the FCC fined Comcast for failing to live up to this obligation.

Now Comcast plans to expand its empire by gobbling up the second-largest company in the cable market (and third-largest in broadband), a move that, as even Comcast's executive vice president admits, could mean that rates will rise at an even faster pace. Not to mention worse service -- and a threat to the free flow of information in America.

That's why I will continue to make the case against this deal. And I hope that, Comcast's outsized political influence notwithstanding, regulators at the FCC and the Department of Justice will listen.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1353 GMT (2153 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT