Consumer groups urge California regulators to oppose big cable TV deal

Consumer groups urge California Public Utilities Commission to oppose the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger

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

The groups spelled out their arguments with the Public Utilities Commission late Wednesday and urged 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 any 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 Greenlining Institute in Berkeley.

"It will give Comcast unprecedented control over telephone and broadband services in California," he said, "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 Consumers Report magazine; the Utility Reform Network, which lobbies the PUC 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 is confident it will win approval from 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," spokesman Bryan Byrd said.

The FCC has set a tentative February deadline for completing its review.

If the deal is 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.

Although the FCC clearly has authority to approve or deny the proposed merger, experts disagree whether the PUC could block the combination in California.

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 to 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 will happen, Nusbaum said.

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

marc.lifsher@latimes.com

Twitter: @MarcLifsher

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