What does the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger mean for you?

It certainly doesn’t sound good when the two largest cable operators, substantially bigger than any of their non-satellite rivals (a year ago TWC had 12.2 million subscribers; even counting telco companies Verizon had only 4.7 million), announce they’re going to merge. As part of the deal, Comcast announced it would sell off systems representing 3 million subscribers to other parties, getting to 30 million and under a former 30% cap that had been thrown out by the courts. Were it not for that, the combined Comcast-Time Warner monolith would have had control over fully a third of the market, over seven times that of the next largest cable company, and nearly as big as DirecTV and Dish Network combined. But what would that actually mean?

Cable operators are natural monopolies; with the exception of a few “overbuilders” (none of which have more than a million subscribers), in most places you only have the choice of one cable operator if you don’t want to get a dish or Verizon or AT&T aren’t available. There’s basically nowhere where Comcast and Time Warner Cable were in direct competition with one another. The fear of a Comcast-TWC merger, it seems, is that such a behemoth could basically set up shop wherever it wanted and keep other cable operators from growing, but even then it’s hard to see how realistic that is. (Or maybe that Comcast could afford to rest on its laurels in terms of service, making it even more Comcrap.) Comcast’s purchase of NBCUniversal had the potential to be far more detrimental to the consumer in this light.

The image that comes to mind when it comes to horizontal integration on this scale is the former AT&T telephone monopoly, but even that was not broken up so much because of its overall reach but because of its vertical integration with AT&T’s business selling telephones and using its control of the phone network to undercut rival phone sellers. Perhaps the analogous fear is that Comcast will use its broad reach to show preferential treatment to NBCUniversal networks, crippling rival programmers by denying them access to 30% of the country or subjecting them to onerous conditions to get there, but it’s not clear that’s actually possible, certainly not as cable providers increasingly become Internet providers first and foremost – especially given the conditions Comcast agreed to as part of the NBCU deal, including abiding by net neutrality even after the courts threw the FCC rules out last month. If anything a larger Comcast (which, if it continues negotiating for Bright House Networks as TWC had, will be negotiating on behalf of 32 million subscribers) might actually lead to positive outcomes for consumers in the long term, standing up to increasing rights fees asked for by other programmers, especially ESPN – though of course Comcast’s own stake in content production might still give them an edge that results in worse outcomes for rival content providers and consumers. (Time will tell if the new Comcast’s approach to sports networks will be more like that of Comcast – which has largely avoided rocking the boat with anyone en route to a portfolio it proclaims as “your home for the most live sports”, legal wrangling with Tennis Channel excepted – or Time Warner Cable, with its high-profile showdowns with the likes of NFL Network, MSG, Viacom, and broadcast networks like CBS and Fox.)

Of course, where those fears might be well founded is in how much leeway Comcast has had even under net neutrality rules, including engaging in its own carriage disputes with bandwidth providers,¬†throttling traffic on video sites, and imposing broadband data caps. A monolithic Comcast/TWC union could still conceivably, without restrictions imposed by Congress or the FCC or agreed to voluntarily by Comcast, create winners and losers in the Internet marketplace, to the point of being able to throttle cord-cutting for a substantial number of Americans. That underscores the importance of allowing as much video as possible to be transmitted over the air where it can lie outside of Comcast’s reach.