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Comcast-AT&T seeking to dismantle regulations

Apr 29, 2002  •  Post A Comment

While Comcast and AT&T tout their planned $72 billion mega-merger as a boon to consumers and competition they’re seeking to dodge or dismantle regulations designed to protect their competitors.
At a Senate hearing last week, Comcast President Brian Roberts and AT&T Chairman and CEO Michael Armstrong said their promise to carry competing Internet service providers does not need to be legally binding.
Meanwhile, the companies have quietly asked the Federal Communications Commission to kill a rule that forces vertically integrated cable providers to offer their programming to unaffiliated cable and satellite systems at nondiscriminatory prices.
The effort by these entertainment giants to weaken the competition while seeking approval from regulators to become the nation’s largest cable operator is upsetting some lawmakers and watchdogs.
“We can’t ignore the potential for a cable company as big as AT&T-Comcast to throw its weight around,” Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., said at the hearing before his Senate antitrust panel. “We need to think about imposing meaningful conditions upon this merger to make it tolerable for consumers.”
The rule under fire, part of the larger program-access regulations, is slated to sunset in October, and Comcast and AT&T want it to expire. The FCC is examining whether to extend it.
The matter is sensitive for the CEOs, who were cagey after the hearing on where they stand. “I don’t think that we’ve opposed that,” Mr. Armstrong told Electronic Media.
But in comments filed with the FCC, AT&T argued for the provision to sunset. “The exclusivity prohibition harms competition and limits program diversity and consumer choice,” AT&T said in a 47-page filing on record with the agency.
Mr. Roberts mostly talked around the issue, referring reporters to his company’s filings.
A combined AT&T-Comcast would own several networks, including QVC, Outdoor Life Network, Comcast SportsNet, Style, E! Entertainment and the Golf Channel. All could be withheld from competitors or offered at inflated rates if the regulation expires.
Sen. Kohl was clear where he stands: The provision should remain. “Now more than ever, in the face of all this consolidation these rules need to be extended,” he said.
Regarding carriage of competing Internet service providers, Mr. Roberts told reporters: “I don’t think that additional regulation is necessary. We, as a business matter, want to offer what the consumer wants.”
He said AT&T-Comcast would voluntarily carry competing ISPs because it makes good business sense.
Some lawmakers noted that, by contrast, AOL and Time Warner agreed to carry competing ISPs as a condition of their merger.
“In the absence of open access provisions … the once wide-open Internet will take on the worst characteristics of the closed, top-down world of cable,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the watchdog Center for Digital Democracy.