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Comcast Merger Wrap-up and Anti-Monopoly Policy - Community Broadband Bits Episode 148

In the aftermath of the Comcast/TWC merger being effectively denied by the Department of Justice and Federal Communications Commission, we thought it was a key moment to focus on antitrust/anti-monopoly policy in DC. To discuss this topic, we talk this week with Teddy Downey, Executive Editor and CEO of the Capitol Forum as well as Sally Hubbard, Capitol Forum senior correspondent and expert on antitrust.

We start off with the basics of why the Comcast takeover of Time Warner Cable posed a problem that regulators were concerned with. From there, we talk more about the cable industry and whether other mergers will similarly alarm regulators.

We end with a short discussion of what states can do to crack down on monopolies and the abuse of market power. Along the way, we discuss whether DC is entering a new era of antimonopoly policy or whether this merger was just uniquely troubling.

We learned about Teddy and Sally from Barry Lynn at the New America Foundation, who we had previously interviewed for one of my favorite shows, episode 83.

Read the transcript from our discussion with Sally and Teddy here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 24 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."

Remembering David Carr, and His Writing on Monopoly Power

Stacy Mitchell, Co-Director of ILSR and Director of the Community-Scaled Economy Initiative, took a few moments to look back over the work of David Carr. Carr's work included investigating monopolies in the telecommunications space. Stacy's story, re-posted here, originally ran on ILSR.org.

What will we do without David Carr, the brilliant media columnist at the New York Times who died last week? At ILSR, we will especially miss his writing on monopoly power, Amazon, and the book business. Below we’ve excerpted and linked to a few of his best recent pieces on those subjects.

In Modern Media Realm, Big Mergers Are a Bulwark Against Rivals — July 16, 2014

Comcast’s bold strategy of acquisition kicked off a wave of defensive consolidation, fueled by a combination of fear and abundant capital in the media realm.

I talked to the head of one company that creates television and movies, who expressed a common sentiment. “When Comcast decided to get bigger,” he said, “we all had to ask ourselves, Are we big enough? We all have to think about getting bigger.”

And why not? No one is stopping them.

With big data, a Big Brother government and now big media, size creates its own prerogatives. When Amazon used its market dominance to limit access to Hachette books over a price dispute, regulators yawned. When AT&T and DirecTV propose a tie-up in response to Comcast, the market issues are just another deal point. Cable companies slowed down content from clients (which are also competitors) like Netflix, and it was treated as a business dispute.

For the most part, the current government has passed on regulating potential monopolies, and as citizens, we have become inured to the consequences of bigness.


Amazon Absorbing Price Fight Punches — June 1, 2014

Someone forgot to tell the book business that it was dead. Last Thursday afternoon, I walked over to the Javits Center in Manhattan, where a throng of people had gathered for BookExpo America, the industry’s annual campfire — so many people that I wondered if there was a free whiskey concession…

The immense space was brimming with a surprising amount of optimism: After years of downward spiral, the industry seems to have found some kind of equilibrium.

It has also watched with a mix of giddiness and anxiety as the Hachette Book Group, one of the big Manhattan publishers, has taken on Amazon in a bitter dispute over pricing. Hachette is suffering big losses because Amazon is delaying delivery of Hachette titles while also eliminating discounts. (Its authors are getting clobbered in the process.) Amazon is taking a reputational hit for not putting its customers first, which has long been its guiding philosophy.

Hachette is the first big publisher to enter talks with Amazon since the last round of negotiations, and book people have rejoiced watching the bully get sand — a heap of negative press — kicked in his face.

Amazon, beloved by Wall Street (until recently) and its customers for putting growth and low prices ahead of profits, is getting a bit of an image makeover right now, and the results have not been pretty.

On one level, this is just one corporate giant fighting with another — Hachette is owned by Lagardère of France — over the share of e-book profits. So why the fuss? The answer is that books are different from the thousands of other products Amazon sells.

As the uproar grows, Amazon is learning that while it may own the publishing industry with a 40 percent market share of all new books sold, according to Publishers Weekly, it doesn’t own the debate….

 

Growling by Comcast May Bring Tighter Leash — Sept. 28, 2014

Comcast has a long corporate tradition of smiling and wearing beige no matter what kind of criticisms are hurled at it. That public posture is in keeping with the low-key approach favored by Brian L. Roberts, the company’s chief executive, as he seeks to take over the world. It’s worked very well so far.

But in a filing submitted to the Federal Communications Commission last week in defense of its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable, the company lashed out uncharacteristically at its critics. And David L. Cohen, Comcast’s chief lobbyist, continued the salvo in comments to reporters and in his written remarks.

Watching Comcast’s ballistic response to opponents of its $45 billion takeover bid was a bit like watching a campaign debate go off the rails. The front-runner, ahead by 20 points, is besieged by ankle-biters who suggest he is a lout and a bully. He finally loses it and goes off on his opponents in a fury, generally acting like, well, a bully.

 

Questions for Comcast as It Looks to Grow — April 6, 2014

It is hard to say how rugged the questions will be when Comcast goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday to defend its proposed megamerger with Time Warner Cable.

We do know that Comcast is feeling pretty confident about its chances. In a recent interview with C-Span, David Cohen, an executive vice president at Comcast and the man who will represent the company, said, “ I have been struck by the absence of rational, knowledgeable voices in this space coming out in opposition or even raising serious questions about the transaction.”

Really? How can the largest cable company in the country bid to buy the second-largest and gain control over 19 of the country’s top 20 markets — corralling a 30 percent market share in cable and a 40 percent share in broadband — and there be no serious questions?

 

Why Barnes & Noble Is Good for Amazon — July 14, 2013

Having a bookstore in your neighborhood, as opposed to one that is bookmarked on your browser, is an invitation. Not long ago, I was walking by an airport bookstore and thought, “What if this was the only place to buy books?” Similar to Hollywood, only the blockbusters would get shelf space…

Bookstores offer discoverability, not just the latest Dan Brown or Carl Hiaasen book on the front table, but sometimes treasures deep in the stacks, a long tail of midlist authors and specialty books. Even as the book business consolidates, the physical object displayed in an actual place will continue to be an important part of the ecosystem.

Let’s hope it survives.

 

Telecom’s Big Players Hold Back the Future — May 19, 2013

Ms. Crawford argues that the airwaves, the cable systems and even access to the Internet have been overtaken by monopolists who resist innovation and chronically overcharge consumers.

The 1996 Telecommunications Act, which was meant to lay down track to foster competition in a new age, allowed cable companies and telecoms to simply divide markets and merge their way to monopoly. If you are looking for the answer to why much of the developed world has cheap, reliable connections to the Internet while America seems just one step ahead of the dial-up era, her office — or her book — would be a good place to find out.

 

Navigating a Tightrope With Amazon — April 29, 2012

Mr. Bissinger, who has built a franchise on journalistic excellence and rhetorical intemperance — see his Twitter account — managed to choose his words carefully when talking about how his e-book ended up as a bug on the windshield of Amazon’s relentlessness on pricing.

That may have a little something to do with the fact that he has a great big book, “Father’s Day,” being released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in just two weeks. It would be a bad time to stick his finger in the eye of a company that sells more books — including his — than any other company in the world.

“It’s a shame that the e-book was not on sale at Amazon,” he said. “Amazon is a crucial outlet for any author, and when you lose them, it’s terrifying. It’s a killer for ‘After Friday Night Lights’ because it was just gaining momentum and books have a very small window of opportunity.”

Like Wal-Mart, Amazon is big enough to set prices in certain categories. Suppliers are left to scramble to meet those objectives or pass up the opportunity to work with the largest retailers in the world. Amazon’s might when it comes to pricing will only grow as the impact of the Justice Department’s lawsuit begins to emerge. But sometimes the company’s tactical aggression lands hard on the people who supply it.

 

Book Publishing’s Real Nemesis - April 16, 2012

The Justice Department finally took aim at the monopolistic monolith that threatened to dominate the book industry. So imagine the shock when the bullet aimed at threats to competition went whizzing by Amazon — which not long ago had a 90 percent stranglehold on e-books — and instead, struck five of the six biggest publishers and Apple, a minor player in the realm of books.

That’s the modern equivalent of taking on Standard Oil but breaking up Ed’s Gas ’N’ Groceries on Route 19 instead…

But pull back a few thousand feet and take a broader look at the interests of consumers. From the very beginning and with increasingly regularity, Amazon has used its market power to bully and dictate. It leaned on the Independent Publishers Group in recent months for better terms and when those negotiations didn’t work out, Amazon simply removed the company’s almost 5,000 e-books from its virtual shelves. The Seattle Times just published a series with examples of how Amazon uses its scale not only to keep its prices low, but also to keep its competitors at bay…

After a week of watching the Justice Department and Amazon team up, I’ve learned that low prices come with a big cost. Maybe I’ll order it at my local bookstore instead.

 

Photo of David Carr by Ian Linkletter.

Greater Minnesota Partnership Focuses on Non-Metro Need - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 136

Like many states, Minnesota has a major metro area that generally has higher quality Internet access than non-metro communities. The Greater Minnesota Partnership, a coalition of businesses, chambers, nonprofits, and cities from across the state, have made improving Internet access a major priority in their efforts to influence the state legislature.

This week, we talk with Dan Dorman, Executive Director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership. He is also a former Minnesota state Rep and remains a small business owner. We discuss the need to improve access even as major cable lobbyists fight in the capital to preserve the status quo. The Partnership believes state barriers to community networks should be removed.

Dorman offers a unique perspective as a former member of the Minnesota Legislature. He knows what it is like to be lobbied constantly by one side of the issue but rarely hear from the other. Fortunately, the Greater Minnesota Partnership is working to provide that other side as best it can.

We previously discussed the Border-to-Border fund in episode 119.

Read the transcript from this conversation here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 28 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."

Checks and Balances

The Supreme Court unanimously rejected efficiency as an excuse for industrial dictatorship when it ordered the breakup of Standard Oil despite the fact that the company had lowered the cost of a gallon of kerosene by more than half. The Supreme Court unanimously rejected the efficiency argument again in 1935 when it ruled President Roosevelt's National Industrial Recovery Act unconstitutional. In every case, the American people embraced not efficiency but freedom and moved to protect that freedom through the erection of intricate systems of checks and balances designed to scatter power.

Community Networks: Checks and Balances

As both AT&T and Comcast seek to increase their market power by buying rivals instead of competing, Barry Lynn reminds us of our history of fighting such consolidated power. From Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction.

In the modern era in the United States, efficiency was a favorite defense by industrial autocrats like John D. Rockefeller and financial autocrats like J.P. Morgan of their used of corporate power to arbitrarily determine particularly political economic outcomes. The progressive elite, meanwhile, later turned efficiency into a veritable religion.

That's why the American people learned long ago to reject efficiency as either a goal or a means to public or private governance, and why we consistently rejected it for the first two hundred years of our nation. We understood that efficiency was a code word for top-down autocratic rule by the lords and the private corporate estates or the "public" state. Hence we rejected efficiency in the Declaration of Independence and again in the Constitution. We rejected efficiency when we wrote the Sherman Antitrust Act, then reiterated our rejection time and again in our other antimonopoly laws.

The Supreme Court unanimously rejected efficiency as an excuse for industrial dictatorship when it ordered the breakup of Standard Oil despite the fact that the company had lowered the cost of a gallon of kerosene by more than half. The Supreme Court unanimously rejected the efficiency argument again in 1935 when it ruled President Roosevelt's National Industrial Recovery Act unconstitutional. In every case, the American people embraced not efficiency but freedom and moved to protect that freedom through the erection of intricate systems of checks and balances designed to scatter power.

You Are Cordially Invited: June 17th Discussion on Cable Companies, Monopolies, and Community Networks

On Tuesday June 17th, Chris will be participating in a conversation hosted by the Media Consortium as part of its Media Policy Reporting and Education Program (MPREP). You are invited to sit in on what is sure to be a spirited discussion on community networks and the lack of competition in the cable industry.

What: Community Fiber Networks: A Realistic Solution to Cable Monopoly?

When: Tuesday, June 17, 3pm ET/ 12 PT

Who: Joining Chris will be:

Ryan Radia, Associate Director for Technology Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He is critical of government-run or regulated projects in general, and specifically critical of community networks. 

Wayne Pyle, City Manager and CEO of West Valley City, Utah's second largest municipality, and also  chair of the board of UTOPIA, the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, a community network serving 11 cities.

This is the first of several monthly briefings hosted by MPREP to discuss media policy issues. Everyone is welcome to participate. Register online for this discussion.

Network Neutrality Update

The FCC is hearing the massive public outcry over its plan that would allow the big cable and telephone companies to create fast and slow lanes on the wires most of us depend on to access the Internet. Chairman Wheeler has made some bold claims that he would not allow commercially unreasonable deals but many doubt the FCC has the authority to enforce his tough talk.

Now we see that FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel wants to slow down the rulemaking for "at least a month" given the outcry.

Resistance to the plan does seem to be building with the emergence of over 100 Internet-dependent companies decrying the possibility of fast and slow lanes. Full letter here [pdf].

Mozilla has developed an alternative approach to reclassification that some are saying just might work, but as a naturally conservative person, I will want to see it vetted by trusted experts like Harold Feld. The main problem with reclassification seems to be that Republicans would demagogue it as Obama attempting to take over the Internet - a problem for Democrats already facing an uphill battle in November.

However, Barbara van Schewick - one of the most knowledgeable people on this matter - makes a strong case for the FCC rebooting the whole process, gathering more input, and ultimately reclassifying Internet access as Title II while forebearing many of the Title II powers that would allow the FCC to wield too much control over access to the Internet.

Much like the FCC has long overseen telephone access without censoring the content of our speech, it would be possible for the FCC to reclassify Internet access without getting involved in content.

However, the larger problem remains - the market power of the massive firms like Comcast and AT&T. As long as they continue to wield the power they do (which will grow if consolidation continues), they will buy support in Congress and use the FCC's revolving door to their advantage; no amount of regulation will ultimately contain them.

To preserve the open Internet over the long haul, we have to reduce the overwhelming power of those companies. We can do that with an "all hands on deck" approach to expanding Internet access - ensuring local governments are free to build their own networks as they choose or partner with trusted entities. On this matter, Chairman Wheeler has said he will use FCC power to remove state barriers to communities make those decisions, a tremendous step forward for preserving the open Internet.

This is a very important moment. We need the FCC to preserve the open Internet by continuing to prevent paid prioritization schemes and we need to create alternative networks to end the cable monopoly and reduce their power in DC and state houses.

Below is an excellent video on this subject that explains the problem and what can be done. As we noted in our podcast with Scott Bradner, the way this video presents the key question of who should pay who represents a break with the past traditions, but it may be time to reconsider who should pay when faced with a cable monopoly for Internet access.

Video: 
See video

Seattleites Want More Than Rhetoric in Quest for Better Broadband

In a recent SLOG post from the Stranger, Ansel Herz commented on Mayor Ed Murray's recent statement on broadband in Seattle. Murray's statement included:

Finding a job, getting a competitive education, participating in our democracy, or even going to work for some, requires high speed internet access. I have seen people say online, "I don’t need a road to get to work, I need high speed internet." Seattle would never leave the construction of roads up to a private monopoly, nor should we allow the City’s internet access to be constructed and managed by a private monopoly.

It is incredibly clear to me and residents throughout the City of Seattle, that the City’s current high speed internet options are not dependable enough, are cost prohibitive for many, and have few (if any) competitive options.

The Mayor also hinted that if the City needs a municipal broadband network, he would "help lead the way."

As a Seattleite, Herz knows firsthand about the lack of connectivity options in the area. Herz writes:

This is both encouraging and disappointingly tentative language from the mayor. It seems to cast municipal broadband as a last resort. Municipal broadband is a no-f*cking-brainer. [our *]

Herz turned to Chris for perspective:

"I have seen this from many Mayors who talk about how someone should do something but we don't always see concrete actions because of the difficulty and the immense opposition from some powerful companies like Comcast," Christopher Mitchell, the Director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative, who's worked with cities across the country on this question, tells me.

Seattle doesn't know what to expect from a Mayor that Comcast tried to buy (we suspect they did not succeed but have nonetheless sent a loud message). It is encouraging to see that the issue has not simply disappeared, but Herz and his neighbors want more:

What are you waiting for, Ed? Progressive rhetoric (and retweeting people who want to see municipal broadband happen) is great, but commitment and action are even better.

Long List of Public Interest Groups Sign on to Free Press Letter Opposing Comcast Time Warner Cable Merger

The Free Press announced that more than 50 public interest groups, including the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, signed on to its letter in opposition to the Time Warner/Comcast merger.

The letter, addressed and delivered to Attorney General Eric Holder and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, begins:

The proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger would give one company enormous power over our nation’s media and communications infrastructure. This massive consolidation would position Comcast as our communications gatekeeper, giving it the power to dictate the future of numerous industries across the Internet, television and telecommunications landscape.

In the press release, Craig Aaron, President and CEO of the Free Press, stated:

“The question before the FCC is whether this deal serves the public interest. The answer is clear: A bigger Comcast is bad for America.

“Merging the nation’s two biggest cable-Internet providers would turn Comcast into our communications gatekeeper, able to dictate the cost and content of news, information and entertainment. We need an Internet and video marketplace that offers people high-quality options at prices they can afford — not a near-national monopoly determining what we can watch and download.

“In the past four years, Comcast has raised basic cable rates in some markets by nearly 70 percent. Its top lobbyist has admitted that the price increases will continue to skyrocket if the merger goes through. And that's about the only thing Comcast has said about this deal that you should believe.

“The growing chorus of groups opposing this takeover knows the truth. The only rational choice is for the FCC and Justice Department to reject this merger."

 

American Enterprise Institute Scholar Calls DSL Obsolete

For the second time this year, one of the major defenders of the cable and telephone companies has admitted that DSL cannot provide the Internet access we need as a nation. This admission validates our research as well as that of Susan Crawford and others that show most Americans are effectively stuck with a cable monopoly.

On April 7, 2014, the Diane Rehm show hosted another discussion on telecommunications policy with guests that included Jeffrey Eisenach, the Director of the Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

During that show, Eisenach stated, "The vast majority of Europeans still only have DSL service available, which we in the United States consider really almost an obsolete technology now."

Interestingly, Eisenach and others have repeatedly claimed that there is no market failure in the US - that we have plenty of choices. But most Americans have to choose between what most now admit is an obsolete DSL product and cable. Eisenach would add 4G LTE as another competitor, but as we have noted many times, the average household would have to pay hundreds of dollars per month to use their LTE connection as a replacement for DSL or cable.

The average household uses something like 40-55 GB of data per month. Given the bandwidth caps from LTE providers, the overage charges quickly result in a bill of approximately $500 or more depending on the plan. This is why the overwhelming majority of the market uses mobile wireless as a complement, not substitute to wired networks.

We are left with one conclusion: there is no meaningful competition or choice for most of us in the residential telecommunications market. And no real prospect of a choice either as the cable companies only grow stronger.

This is not the first time Eisenach admitted that DSL is insufficient for our needs. Back in January, on Diane's show, he again used Europe's dependence on DSL as evidence that it was falling behind: "They are reliant on these 20th century copper networks which have real limits on the amount of speed that they can deliver."

Even those who only want the private sector to deliver services are starting to admit that the existing providers are failing us. What more do communities need to take an active role in ensuring their needs are met?