Consumer groups ask PUC to deny Comcast, Time Warner merger

"This merger is a terrible deal for Californians, particularly for communities of color..," said Paul Goodman.

A coalition of California consumer groups fighting a huge nationwide cable TV merger is asking state telecommunications regulators to oppose it.

The groups filed legal opposition briefs with the Public Utilities Commission late Wednesday urging the commission to deny an application to combine the nation's two largest cable companies, Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable Inc.

The proposed merger is pending before the Federal Communications Commission, and it's not clear whether the PUC will play a role in approving or denying the $45-billion deal.

"This merger is a terrible deal for Californians, particularly for communities of color and low-income consumers," said Paul Goodman, a lawyer for the Berkeley-based Greenlining Institute. "It will give Comcast unprecedented control over telephone and broadband services in California and is sure to mean higher prices for consumers, businesses, schools and libraries, as well as less diverse content and fewer choices for the public."

The other members of the coalition include Consumers Union, which publishes  Consumer Reports magazine; The Utility Reform Network, which lobbies for ratepayers; California Common Cause, which is involved in government ethics and transparency issues; and the Media Alliance, which advocates to make the Internet and social media available to all.

Comcast said it is confident of winning approval from the California regulators. "We will successfully demonstrate to the commission the many public interest benefits our investment will bring to residential and business consumers in California," said spokesman Bryan Byrd.

The FCC has set a tentative February deadline for completing the review. If approved, the new company would serve 30% of the nation's cable TV households and about 40% of homes that have broadband Internet service. Comcast also would become the largest cable company in the Los Angeles region with 1.8-million customers.

While the FCC clearly has authority to approve or deny the proposed merger, experts disagree whether regulators in California could prohibit the deal here.

Telecom lawyer Bill Nusbaum at the Utility Reform Network has argued that the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 shares power with the states to require cable and Internet service providers make broadband service widely available.

"Our position is that the commission should reject it and send an advisory opinion to the FCC to reject it," Nusbaum said.

The PUC tentatively has scheduled a hearing on the proposed merger for next week in San Francisco, though it's not clear whether the proceeding actually will happen, Nusbaum said.

The cable industry rejects Nusbaum's legal theory and contends that the California regulators have no authority over the Internet communications and related telephone services that transmit digitally over the Internet.

Twitter: @MarcLifsher

 

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