You have less than 24 hours to tell the policy makers in Washington, D.C., that you want them to stop the anti-consumer, anti-competitive mega-merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable. By Tuesday morning, the FCC will have stopped taking comments and your chance to be heard will be gone – but the voices of the lobbyists who spend millions to get their ways will still be ringing loud and clear.
It’s easy to be cynical and figure there's nothing you can do to make a difference. But sometimes regulators do listen. Just a few years ago, public outrage over AT&T’s anti-competitive attempt to buy T-Mobile helped kill it, and the storms of protest over Sprint’s attempt to buy T-Mobile this year ended that deal as well.
A combination of the two largest cable companies in the United States would give Comcast way too much power over what can you watch on TV and what you can access on the Web. (If you want to know how Comcast sees the issue, you can read its unfiltered point of view.)
Remember, Comcast is not just the largest cable TV provider; it’s also one of the largest ISPs in the nation. It owns a broadcast network (NBC/MSNBC) and a movie studio (Universal Pictures), and the company provides home phone service for millions of customers.
If Comcast swallows Time Warner, the number two cable provider, millions of consumers across the country will have no choice of cable providers. Comcast will set the rates, decide which programs it wants to carry and how much it wants to pay the companies that produce that content.
Cable channels, such as AMC, make money by charging cable companies for the right to carry its programming. When a channel and the cable provider can’t agree on a price, programming gets dropped, which is exactly what happened a few years ago when Dish Network dropped AMC, infuriating fans of Mad Men. If Time Warner disappears, those content providers will be under even more pressure to fold to Comcast’s demands.
Comcast and Time Warner provide such bad service that the two companies landed at the bottom of the American Customer Satisfaction Index for both TV and Internet service. Think it will get better when they merge? Some Comcast customers took to recording conversations with company reps so they can prove they’re not getting the service they paid for, and one exasperated woman in New Mexico even pulled out a gun during an argument with a service tech.
All of this should be more than enough reason to stop the merger, but because Comcast is a giant ISP, its power extends beyond the TV screen to the Internet.
Until this year, the FCC enforced a rule called "net neutrality." Simply put, net neutrality means that bits are bits, and no matter who controls the pipes used to transport those bits, all must be treated equally. In practice, it means carriers cannot discriminate against content moving across its network, even if that content is provided by a competitor.
So Comcast, for example, wasn’t allowed to slow down content delivered by Netflix or Skype while giving priority to its own content, or that of its business partners. That rule was struck down in January, and because Comcast owns content produced by MSNBC and other providers, it is possible the company will stack the deck against competitors and their content.
Earlier this year, Netflix agreed (forced might be a better word) to pay a premium to Comcast to get its subscribers faster access to Netflix’s streaming video content. Comcast says it would never use its control of the broadband pipes to throttle a competitor. Do you believe that? If not, you really should add your voice to the chorus of opposition. You can do so via the FCC's website. Consumerist.com also published a how-to guide for leaving comments with the FCC. (By the way, don't be intimidated by the comments form. You only need to fill out the fields marked with a star. The proceeding number is 14-57.)