Editorial: A no-brainer for the FCC

May 6, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Cable giants AT&T and Comcast are talking out of both sides of their mouths as they try to sell the government and the public on their planned $72 billion merger.
Out of one side-the feel-good, smiley-face, fun-loving uncle side-they’re trying to cajole consumers into buying the whimsical notion that creating the world’s largest cable company would be good for competition. Meanwhile, the other side of their enormous megacorporate face-the stern, hardball-throwing, all-business side-is pressing government regulators to help beat down the merged company’s competition.
AT&T has asked the Federal Communications Commission to kill a rule that forces vertically integrated cable providers-companies that own networks along with cable distribution systems-to make their programming available at nondiscriminatory prices to rival cable and satellite systems. The rule, part of a larger set of program-access regulations, is set to expire in October, and considering the deregulatory mind-set of the FCC under Chairman Michael Powell, its survival is very much in doubt.
The fate of program-access rules and of the AT&T-Comcast merger is being closely followed by lawmakers, including Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis. “We can’t ignore the potential for a cable company as big as AT&T-Comcast to throw its weight around,” Sen. Kohl said at a hearing last month before his Senate antitrust panel. “We need to think about imposing meaningful conditions upon this merger to make it tolerable for consumers.”
Sen. Kohl’s comments, though understated, are right on target. Even before the merger is approved, when one might expect AT&T-Comcast to be on its best behavior, its hard-line politicking makes clear that it has no intention of being Mr. Nice Guy in the fiercely competitive cable world. And the track record of the cable industry as a whole gives little reason to expect a cable operator on the unprecedented scale of AT&T-Comcast to foster a warm, fuzzy relationship with its customers.
Clearly, if AT&T-Comcast isn’t forced to play fair, it won’t, and that makes this a relatively easy call for regulators and lawmakers. The right thing to do is to keep the programaccess rules in place, take a long, hard look at whether the merger should be approved, and if it is approved, slap sufficient restrictions on it to ensure that the public is protected.