Feb. 17th, 2014

missmediajunkie: (Default)
I finally managed to ditch Comcast internet service a few months ago because I had moved into an area where a local provider offered competitive prices and I was no longer in an apartment that had made a deal with them for service. I didn’t have too much trouble with Comcast, probably because there were always several local options that kept them on their toes. Still, they did manage to cause their share of headaches. I’ve moved around a lot the past couple of years and had to disconnect and reconnect service repeatedly. At one point I could only access my current bill by going to an old account number and pulling up the electronic statements online - though customer service swore that the old account had been terminated.

Other people in the U.S. don’t have it so lucky, stuck with Comcast or Charter or Time Warner or Cox as their only real option in a geographic area for internet service, and their customers tend to hate their guts. These are consistently among the lowest rated service providers in consumer satisfaction polls. Constant complaints of poor service, high prices, and crummy broadband speeds have been lobbed at them from all sides. The United States currently has average internet speeds that are less than half of what you find in countries like South Korea and Romania. Some put-upon tech geeks are so frustrated by the limited options that they’ve been pinning their hopes on Google Fiber, which has been ever-so-slowly rolling out service that is exponentially faster than the average broadband speeds offered by the big companies.

So surely the announcement that Comcast is buying Time Warner Cable for $45 billion should set off the anti-trust alarm bells, right? These are two of the largest internet providers in the country. And with so many people already complaining about the near-monopoly these companies have in some places, surely the Justice Department and the FCC aren’t going approve this merger, are they? Well, Comcast and plenty of financial analysts are betting they will. Comcast has announced that it’s willing to let go of as many as 3 million subscribers in order to make sure the new company has less than 30% of the broadband market, the maximum market share that a single company can control before it runs afoul of antitrust regulations. They’ll probably do this by selling off part of Time Warner’s cable business to another company.

They’re still facing a steep uphill battle though. The merger is deeply unpopular, and public interest groups have been up in arms about the impact on consumers. They predict higher prices, service disruptions, and little incentive to fix the problems that customers have complained about for years. Moreover, the merged company would potentially have the clout to affect content providers and other media companies. Apple TV and Netflix are among the potential losers here, content platforms that were trying to negotiate deals with Time Warner before the merger was announced. Now that the courts have dealt a blow to Net Neutrality, Comcast and Time Warner controlling up to a third of the market reduces the VOD services’ leverage and could put them in a very bad position. Time Warner shareholders aren’t happy either. One of them has already filed a class action lawsuit trying to put the brakes on the deal moving forward, though it’s not expected to be much of a hurdle.

Comcast insists that the merger will be a benefit to consumers, that the efficiencies of scale will allow them to build faster networks and offer new products. However, single companies controlling large market shares tend to do the opposite. I can’t help thinking of the monopoly Comcast affiliate NBC currently has over the coverage of the Sochi Olympics, and the utterly appalling job they’ve been doing. No live broadcasts. Not nearly enough hours devoted to coverage. Horrible editing and obnoxious packaging of events. And, of course, invasive, inappropriate reporting tactics that reduced a bronze medalist to tears over the weekend. The NBC coverage was so bad at the London Olympics two years ago, I haven’t even bothered to try watching any of it this year, catching a few of the CBC and BBC highlights on Youtube instead whenever something newsworthy comes up.

If you want the full coverage, though, it’s NBC or nothing. And if you want broadband internet in some parts of the country, it’s going to be Comcast/Time Warner or nothing. Internet access is such a major necessity in my life now that I’ll be keeping a close eye on how this situation plays out. There are rumors that Charter might be going after Cox if the Comcast and Time Warner merger is approved. And if I move again in the future, having a choice of service providers may end up being one of the deciding factors.
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