Two prominent House Democrats are calling on the Federal Communications Commission to impose conditions to preserve affordable broadband service and fair access to online content on any approval of the merger of Comcast and NBC Universal.
Rep. Henry Waxman, the California Democrat who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, sent a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski on Tuesday asking him to impose what would amount to net neutrality rules barring the combined entity from giving its own online video content favorable delivery over competitors.
"The combination of Comcast and NBCU will give the nation's largest cable TV company and broadband provider control of a massive catalogue of content, channels and household Internet connections," Waxman said. "Video programming and Internet distribution will be inextricably intertwined to an unprecedented degree."
The proposed $30 billion combination is currently under separate reviews at the FCC and Justice Department.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) penned a separate letter to Genachowski this week warning that the merged company might raise the prices for standalone broadband service as a way to compel subscribers to pay for a bundled TV and Internet package.
"With customers increasingly using their broadband connections to access video content online, control of both the content and the conduit through which it is delivered would provide Comcast the ability to make 'cutting the cord' less financially attractive to consumers, undermining competition and choice," Markey wrote.
Markey also raised similar concerns to Waxman's about the incentive the combined entity might have to discriminate against rival Web video content.
Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice declined to comment on Markey's letter or address in detail the specific concerns that Waxman raised, instead amplifying his call for an expeditious conclusion of the review of the merger.
"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," Fitzmaurice said in an email to InternetNews.com "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."
Waxman and Markey both warned of an array of other potential consumer harms that could arise from the merger, including unfavorable carriage pricing for unaffiliated cable stations and independent channels that could limit programming choice.
The calls for conditions on the Comcast-NBC merger come more than a year after the proposed transaction was first announced, and just days ahead of a scheduled FCC vote on net neutrality rules. Genachowski billed his plan to a vote on the net neutrality item at the agency's Dec. 21 meeting as a compromise that would back away from an earlier proposal to reclassify broadband access as a regulated telecommunications service, an idea that drew vehement opposition from the phone and cable industries.
Comcast has endorsed the new plan, though the two Republican FCC commissioners have panned it as unwarranted regulatory overreach, a view echoed by many GOP lawmakers, including Michigan's Fred Upton, who yesterday received the nod from the Republican Steering Committee to chair the Energy and Commerce Committee, replacing Waxman in the 112th Congress.
Upton campaigned for the chairmanship on a hard-line conservative platform, pledging to lead the effort to repeal President Obama's health-care reform bill and, among other things, call Genachowski to task for what he described as an over-zealous regulatory agenda. As word began to leak out last month that the FCC was renewing its efforts to enact net neutrality rules, Upton called on the agency to "stand down," promising that Genachowski "will soon be a familiar face on Capitol Hill" as the committee launches a rigorous oversight process.