Preston Gralla: With Comcast deal, say goodbye to the Internet as we've known it

If the Federal Communications Commission allows Comcast to buy Time Warner Cable, you can kiss any dreams of truly high-speed access to an open Internet goodbye. The Internet will be a far poorer place. And Comcast will be a far richer company.

There's already little broadband competition in the U.S., and this deal will all but kill it. Susan Crawford, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and a visiting professor at Harvard Law School who has studied broadband competition, is a harsh critic of the proposed buyout. In an article for Bloomberg, she writes, "The reason this deal is scary is that for the vast majority of businesses in 19 of the 20 largest metropolitan areas in the country, their only choice for a high-capacity wired connection will be Comcast."

With little or no competition, Comcast will have little reason to increase the speed or lower the cost of broadband. And we need faster, cheaper broadband; the U.S. lags behind many countries in both areas. Akamai says that the average broadband speed in the U.S. is 7.4Mbps, only eighth in the world. And at an average price of $6.14 per Mbps, our broadband access is one of the most expensive in the developed world.

Comcast has already begun introducing broadband data caps, charging higher rates when those caps are exceeded. With the reduction in competition that will ensue from a Time Warner buyout, those caps won't go away.

Speed and price aren't the only concerns. Internet openness is also endangered. A U.S. court of appeals has already struck down FCC rules guaranteeing Net neutrality, which requires that ISPs treat all Internet traffic equally. Competition might keep companies from offering speedier access to websites willing to pay more and slowing down access to websites that don't cough up, but where will competition come from if this buyout goes through? Comcast would have such a dominant position that it could even black out websites if negotiations go poorly, taking a page from its buyout partner, Time Warner Cable, which blacked out CBS broadcasts for New York subscribers for weeks until it settled a contract disagreement with the television network.

When Comcast purchased NBCUniversal, it signed a consent decree with the FCC to adhere to Net neutrality, but only until 2017. After that, Comcast is free to do what it wants. Without any real competition able to offer customers an alternative, what chance is there that Comcast will stick to that agreement a minute longer than it has to?

I keep saying "if" this buyout goes through, but it's practically in the bag. Comcast has spread its tentacles deep into Washington's power centers. Meredith Attwell Baker, a onetime FCC commissioner who voted to approve Comcast's merger with NBCUniversal, is now a Comcast lobbyist. The New York Times reports that Comcast spent $18 million on lobbying in 2013 alone, that Comcast CEO Brian Roberts has golfed with President Obama and that Obama has visited Roberts' home on Martha's Vineyard. David Cohen, who heads Comcast's relationship with government regulators, has been a big Obama fundraiser, once hosting an event at his home that raised $1.2 million. Cohen was also recently a guest at a White House state dinner for French President Francois Hollande.

Still, the deal isn't done yet. Luckily in this case, the wheels of government grind slowly, and it could take up to a year before the FCC rules on it. It's a year that opponents should use to do everything they can to stop it.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).


Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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