California Public Utilities Commission holds Comcast hearing

Utilities commission will vote March 26 on takeover of Time Warner Cable

Consumers on Wednesday took turns praising and blasting Comcast's proposed takeover of Time Warner Cable, which would make the combined company the dominant provider of cable TV and high-speed Internet service in California.

The California Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to vote March 26 on a proposed transfer of licenses currently held by Time Warner Cable. Comcast also would pick up customers served by Charter Communications in the Los Angeles region.

At the hearing Wednesday in San Francisco, four PUC commissioners listened as various parties, including members of the public, commented on the proposed deal. Already, an administrative law judge, who is advising the PUC, recommended that the commission approve Comcast's takeover — but with a lengthy list of conditions.

Suggested conditions include requiring Comcast to offer its $9.95-a-month Internet Essentials program to eligible low-income families within its proposed new service area. The company also would have to provide service to 45% of the targeted low-income homes within two years after absorbing Time Warner Cable systems.

Comcast already is the dominant operator in Northern California. It would gain about 1.8 million customers in Southern California.

Business organizations, including the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, and community groups said they supported the deal.

One speaker, Linda Asbury, who represents a San Mateo economic development initiative, said Comcast was the only company that answered a call in 2010 to dramatically upgrade broadband Internet service in downtown San Mateo. Before the lines were upgraded, the tech-heavy area had slow high-speed service.

"Comcast totally understood our vision and what we were doing," Asbury said. "Our experience with Comcast has been very professional."

However, consumer advocates complained the deal would give Comcast "unprecedented market power."

"If the Comcast is allowed to take over Time Warner Cable, Californians can expect to be hit with higher prices, fewer choices and even worse customer service," said Michael McCauley, spokesperson for Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports. "There are no conditions that could prevent or overcome the harms that would occur."

His group and other consumer advocates including the Greenlining Institute and the Writers Guild of America West, delivered a petition which they said contained the signatures of 90,000 people who were opposed to the deal.

Opponents said they worried the merger would stifle development of Internet streaming services on the Internet.

Consumers might also be hit with data caps on their Internet service plans, which could prove problematic for people who stream hours of Internet video rather than subscribe to a traditional package of cable TV channels.

"The vast majority of California would have no alternative to turn to for their broadband service," said Matt Friedman, a film editor who lives in Los Angeles who testified by phone for the hearing. "This would take away consumer choice and quash competition against Comcast's core service, which is providing cable TV channels."

In a follow-up interview, Friedman said the meeting should have been held in Los Angeles, not San Francisco. Friedman also lamented that some of the more than dozen community groups represented at the meeting have received financial contributions from Comcast and so they shouldn't be considered objective.

Several speakers called Comcast a worthy corporate citizen that employs more than 10,000 workers in California and provides generous support to community groups. Speakers gave testimonials about how Comcast's community outreach has made a difference.

Amos Brown, a pastor and board member of the NAACP, told the commission members that corporate donations were a lot like "cow manure."

"If you don't spread it around it does no good in the field," Brown told the PUC. "Give this to Comcast, they know how to spread the manure around."

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