CPUC Gets Earful on Comcast/Time Warner Cable

The California Public Utilities Commission held a three-hour plus stakeholder meeting Feb. 25—there appeared to be about 50 people at the meeting—in advance of its planned vote next month on the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger, or at least the phone and broadband portions of the proposed merger.

In a Feb. 13 decision, a CPUC administrative law judge recommended that the state approve the merger with more than a dozen conditions, including improving customer service, providing backup batteries for VoIP service (one of the issues the Federal Communications Commission is mulling as part of the IP transition), extending Comcast's Internet Essentials low-cost broadband program to TWC customers and upgrading K-12 Internet infrastructure.

That decision prompted the meeting, where deal parties, proponents and opponents weighed in. CPUC commissioner Carla Peterman, who presided, said the purpose of the meeting was to get an idea of what people like and don't like in the ALJ order to guide the CPUC decisionmaking process over the next several weeks.

In the public forum portion, the deal got hammered by some commenters, in person and on the phone, and praised by others, including groups who said they had been helped by Comcast and supported the merger. A representative from Self-Help For The Elderly praised Comcast's Internet Essentials program, including self-help computer skills classes, one of many to praise that low-income broadband program. A member of a local chamber of commerce said he appreciated Comcast's investment of both resources and time in the community, which was echoed by a representative of the Fresno chamber of commerce. Then there was the representative of a San Francisco LGBT center who talked of Comcast's financial support for the center and as a communications link to the community. He thanked them for their support of the LGBT community and other diverse communities in San Francisco.

There was actually a parade of groups hailing Comcast as, in the words of one supporter, a "committed civic partner."

But there were some discouraging words as well. The first commenter, Matthew Friedman, who identified himself as "just a consumer," said the deal would "forever destroy competition to the forced cable bundle." He said the proposed deal was not in his interest and he was dismayed that the CPUC had not held public hearings on the deal around the state and said the deal had been "effectively invisible" to the public. He said the deal's consolidation will cause "immeasurable damage." He also talked about the devastating case "intervenors" against the deal had made (so he was clearly an educated consumer when it came to the deal challenge process). He also said if the deal were approved, the reaction by Californians would be harsher and swifter than it had been against the SOPA and PIPA legislation.

Comcast has signaled some of the conditions might need tweaking, and others might not be achievable. At the meeting, attorney Suzanne Toller speaking for both Comcast and Time Warner Cable, identified one of the former as a supplier diversity condition, which they supported in concept, but said needed more information to determine whether the targets are realistic.

Toller said that the deal would result in consumer benefits. She said the parties strongly support the ALJ's conclusion that the deal is in the public interest. Toller said that, ultimately, its issues with the ALJ decision conditions are all resolvable.

The CPUC is planning to vote on the ALJ recommendation on March 26. Formal comments on that decision are due March 5 and replies are due March 10.

On the same day as the meeting, Common Cause, Consumers Union, Courage Campaign, CREDO, Daily Kos, Greenlining Institute, Media Alliance, Presente, TURN, and the Writers Guild of America, West announced they had collected 90,000 signatures from Californians on a petition calling on the CPUC to block the deal, arguing it gives Comcast too much control of the broadband market.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.