Reports are swirling around the media universe that Comcast is prepared to announce, as early as Thursday, a deal to acquire Time Warner Cable for north of $45 billion.
The deal would combine the nation's biggest and second-biggest cable firms. Comcast, already No. 1 in subscribers, would end up with about 30 million video customers, a net gain of 8 million (following a reported commitment to divest 3 million subs). It would put that subscriber base together with its ownership of NBCUniversal -- the network, the film studio and several other cable channels.
Let's get to the bottom line. There's no way this combination can conceivably be in the public interest. The deal is a blunt challenge to the Federal Communications Commission and its new chairman, Tom Wheeler; the question is whether the FCC will fold against the economic and political power of these two behemoths.
As the leading provider of Internet services to American homes, Comcast has already shown that it's not above using its effective near-monopoly on Internet connectivity in its service area to stifle competitors. The FCC slapped its wrist after it was caught engaging in this illicit behavior in 2007, but then inexplicably waved through Comcast's acquisition of NBCUniversal in 2011.
The acquisition of Time Warner Cable will simply expand the geographical area subject to its ruthless competitive practices. (Comcast is committed to adhering to standards of net neutrality, which forbid its discriminating among Web services in carrying them to subscribers' homes, until January 2018. That was a condition of the NBCUniversal deal, but after that date the shackles are off.)
Comcast's acquisition of NBCUniversal was a deal that the FCC should never have approved. Here's what we wrote about it in 2011:
"Neither Comcast nor NBC needs this merger for its survival. It won't improve cable TV or Internet technology. It won't by itself lead to more innovative or even more popular television programming. It won't result in more efficient entertainment production.
"In fact, by concentrating economic power in fewer hands, it may lead to less of all that."
Nothing that's happened since the merger has contradicted those predictions.
In fact, since then the threat to a free and open Internet from the concentration of economic power over online services has increased. A federal appeals court ruling last month threw out the FCC's rules protecting the open Internet (on the urging of Verizon, which is Comcast's counterpart as an excessively powerful player in the wireless sphere).
As we wrote at the time, the court ruling made clear that the FCC has all the authority it needs to protect net neutrality, if it only goes about it the right way, but Wheeler has yet to tip his hand about whether, or how, he will do that.
Wheeler spoke publicly just three days ago about "the primacy of 'competition, competition, competition,'" in safeguarding the public interest: "Our competition policy will take the 'see-saw' approach," he told a high-tech conference in Boulder, Colo. "When competition is high, regulation can be low; when competition is low, we are willing to act in the public interest."
The Comcast-Time Warner deal manifestly would be disastrous for the competitive landscape Wheeler says is his paramount goal. The principles he articulated dictate that he and his fellow FCC commissioners must block it. Will he stick to his guns?