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Ex-FCC Member Opposes Bell / TCI Merger : Telecommunications: Consumer activists led by Nicholas Johnson urge the Justice Dept. to block the deal on antitrust grounds.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

A former Federal Communications Commissioner on Wednesday joined Ralph Nader and other consumer activists in asking the Justice Department to block the proposed merger of cable giant Tele-Communications Inc. and the Bell Atlantic telephone company.

In a two-page memorandum sent to Assistant Atty. Gen. Anne K. Bingaman, former FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson, Nader and three others argued that the combination of TCI and Bell Atlantic “would lead to less competition and less diversity.”

They also decried “attempts by large cable companies, particularly Time Warner and TCI, to leverage their monopolistic control” over local cable franchises “to obtain monopolistic control over cable programming channels.”

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The group’s memo, which comes on the heels of recent criticism of the deal by several key lawmakers, appeared aimed at increasing pressure on the Clinton Administration to re-examine the federal government’s generally laissez-faire antitrust policy of the past three administrations.

Under that approach, the government has focused almost exclusively on price-fixing cases and permitted most mergers to occur.

Indeed, a number of legal experts believe that the proposed merger does not contravene traditional antitrust rules or FCC public interest standards. Nevertheless, the proposal is becoming something of a lightning rod for opposition to a recent wave of consolidation sweeping the telecommunications industry.

Much of the rancor over the Bell Atlantic-TCI union, critics say, has been fueled by TCI and its chief executive, John C. Malone, whose take-no-prisoners quest to meld telecommunications technologies has sparked worries that the merger would stifle competition in cable television, where TCI already has about 22% of all subscribers.

“A goodly number of organizations are skeptical about TCI; there’s lots of anxiety,” said Andrew Schwartzman, executive director of the Media Access Project in Washington.

However, both Malone and Bell Atlantic Chairman Raymond C. Smith--who attended a “Networked Economy” industry conference here Wednesday--expressed confidence that their merger will be approved. They also insisted that it would promote competition.

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“Consumers are now paying a premium for not having a choice,” Smith said.

A Justice Department spokeswoman would not comment on the memo sent to Bingaman. Last week, U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno promised to review the case but said she had not yet talked to Bingaman about it.

However, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown, who also spoke at the industry conference, indicated that the deal may not be at odds with the Administration’s efforts to modernize the nation’s electronic information infrastructure. He declined to comment specifically.

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