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Comcast to Senate: We Won't Block/Degrade Content

Comcast's David Cohen repeatedly told the Senate that Comcast was not blocking or degrading competitors' online content and that he was sure whatever network neutrality rules the FCC approves would prevent that, as do the network neutrality conditions Comcast is subject to through the NBCU merger.

That came in a marathon and wide-ranging hearing on the state of the video marketplace, particularly online video, as well as the proposed mergers of Comcast with Time Warner Cable and AT&T with DirecTV.

Dish SVP Jeff Blum had said one reason the company opposed that deal was the fear that Comcast would try to stifle its planned over-the-top video service.

Deal critics on the witness list, including Blum, Public Knowledge President Gene Kimmelman and Writers Guild of America, West member Shawn Ryan (The Shield, The Unit) argued that the merged Comcast and Time Warner Cable would control too many of the nation's residential broadband connections--close to half--and that was just too much power over a growing video distribution competitor, power to favor their own content or disfavor their competitors.

Cohen countered that the 50% figure was a scare tactic and just wrong. He said the figure was more like 30% of those connections, and only 15% if wireless is included.

Their response was that the smaller figure was of a universe that included 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream, which was hardly sufficient speeds. Cohen pointed out that he was using the FCC's own definition (it is considering changing those definitions), and that Netflix had said 4 Mbps was good enough for high def video.

Cohen and Stankey said that their companies needed to get bigger to compete with national platforms like satellite and online providers, and to be able to further invest in high-speed broadband deployment.

Cohen had a lot to say at the hearing, including that Comcast supported the FCC's inquiry into paid peering and interconnection.

Cohen said that the issue was separate from network neutrality, pointing out he and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler were in agreement on that point, but that Comcast applauds the FCC's look into whether interconnect in is a choke point or there is a need for regulatory action--Cohen said he was confident the answer would be no--but that Comcast was comfortable with the FCC getting to the bottom of the issue.

Cohen reiterated that Comcast also supported the FCC's effort to come up with transparency and anti-blocking and anti-discrimination rules, so long as it did not use Title II to buttress them.

He also defended the company's "style" on municipal broadband, which he said was his style as a former municipal official (Philadelphia), which was that while he did not agree with states preempting cities, he also did not believe in the federal government preempting states.

Cohen said that Comcast, generally, had serious issues with whether municipalities should get into broadband, and his style was to talk with city officials about why the company thought it was a mistake. We have a right to advocate against it, he said. Taxpayers subsidies of poorly run, and ultimately bankrupt municipal broadband ultimately don't help anyone he said, pointing to Provo, Utah, whose taxpayers will be paying for 20 years for a network that did not pan out and was ultimately sold to Google for a dollar.

Sen. Corey Booker (D-N.J), praised Cohen as one of the best ever city officials, but said he was kind of offended that lobbyists would work against low-cost broadband offerings that could help close the digital divide. Cohen countered that he acknowledge that divide, but that a clearer path to that result was education, and programs like Comcast's Internet Essentials low-cost broadband program, not municipal builds.

As expected, the news that Twenty-First Century Fox had made a bid for Time Warner came up during the conversations.

Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said such a deal would have enormous consequences. Kimmelman said it was an example of the "arms" race that ensues when transmission companies bulk up and, no surprise, content companies want to bulk up and consumers are the ones who get squeezed between them.