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
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT