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Waxman: Comcast/NBCU Deal Needs Net Neutrality, Program Access Conditions

House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has asked the Federal Communications Commission to conclude its merger review on Comcast/NBC Universal by the end of the year, but only with a number of conditions, including network neutrality and online access, responsive to various deal critics including American Cable Association and Allbritton Communications.
In a letter to FCC chairman Julius Genachowski Tuesday, Waxman wrote that after careful consideration" he had concluded that the deal should include conditions on program access, network neutrality related to online video, as well ones related to unaffiliated and independent programming.

Comcast thanked Waxman for his support for finishing government review, and said it was working with regulators on the issues he raised.

On the program access front, he said that the FCC should apply a condition requiring access on a reasonable and nondiscriminatory basis to all programs or channels in which Comcast/NBCU has a financial interest, independent of program access rules. He also said that the FCC should "recognize the difficulties small cable operators and satellite companies encounter while negotiating with larger companies like Comcast," and not force them to accept "unreasonable fees, terms or conditions" because of their relative lack of market power." ACA was making that same point earlier in the day in a conference call with reporters about its suggested conditions.

Waxman said traditional and online video distribution are going to be "inextricably intertwined." As a result, he said, the FCC should impose conditions that prevent Comcast from degrading or blocking online distribution of competing programming, prevent it from prioritizing higher quality of service for its own online video relative to competitors delivered over its network, and protecting the ability of third-party programmers to make their content on competitive Web sites and other platforms.

That provision would be Comcast's own personal net neutrality rules, but Waxman said they could be "harmonized" with similar requirements if the FCC adopts open Internet rules.

Waxman also wrote that he wants channel and tiering protections for competing programmers, like say Bloomberg or regional news channels, from being placed outside "neighborhoods" for similar programming on Comcast systems: "Comcast should not be permitted to isloate competitive offerings to these channels by placing them outside of the 'neighborhood' for such content."

Bloomberg has raised similar issues, as has Allbritton in pointing out the power of the new Comcast/NBCU combo in the D.C. market served by Allbritton's NewsChannel * regional news net.

Lastly, Waxman's missive indicated that he wants conditions that "measurably strengthen" opportunities for independent writers, producers and directors.

Without those conditions, Waxman suggested in the letter, costs will go up, service will be degraded and consumer choice will be reduced.

Comcast chose to concentrate on the call for wrapping up the review.

"We thank chairman Waxman for joining other Congressional leaders in calling on the regulatory agencies to conclude their review of our transaction before year end. This deal will bring significant benefits for consumers, independent programmers, and diversity groups, and the sooner approvals are concluded, the sooner these benefits will be seen in the marketplace. We continue to work with the regulatory agencies on the issues identified by chairman Waxman."

John Eggerton
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.