The Future of Broadband and Cable Competition

Publication Date: 
September 11, 2010
Susan Crawford

Though this article may appear on first glance to be unrelated to broadband networks that put community needs first, Susan Crawford discusses the damaging effects of large scale companies like Comcast using market power to prevent competition. Scale is a very important part of any discussion about competition and broadband policy.

The Comcast/NBCU merger is aimed right at competition — avoiding any series of steps that might result in having dumb (but big) pipes serving the areas where Comcast now has dominion, and avoiding having Comcast’s pipe itself made dumb. If the merger goes through as Comcast proposes, the new NBCU will have the power in Comcast’s market areas (where it routinely has a 60 percent-plus share of local pay-TV customers) to raise other pay-TV providers’ (satellite, small cable, telephone, nascent online distributors) costs of doing business substantially.

This will mean, among other things, that competing aggregators of online video who don’t have reasonable access to crucial NBCU content (particularly sports) won’t have the power to constrain Comcast’s prices. Comcast ties access to online video content it controls to a cable subscription, and Time Warner does the same thing with its content. Many of the other pay TV providers will cooperate in this plan, which goes by the nickname “TV Everywhere”. This means that independent online aggregators don’t stand a chance — because consumers will be used to getting highly-branded online video for “free” as part of their bundle from their ISP, they won’t be willing to pay for an independent service.

For those who hope that technological change will unseat the market power of an even larger Comcast, think again:

Wireless? Well, the laws of physics tell us that wireless just doesn’t have the capacity of a fast wired cable connection. It will be a complementary service, not a substitute. Wireless is much less efficient in its use of spectrum and faces much harsher signal environments than signals do inside a controlled cable environment, and so the overall number of bits that can be conveyed in a given amount of time in a mobile environment is much lower than that possible in cable systems. We love mobility, but for watching live video, we’ll still prefer wired cable.

The giant cable operators generally do not compete with each other in major metropolitan areas in the US. (The one exception is New York City, which is so large and complex that Comcast, TW, and Cablevision have all stayed in place – but the cable systems have divided up the boroughs among themselves.) In general, non-competing cable systems have at least 70% of the video customers in more than half of the top 50 DMAs in the US. In a series of transactions and gentlemen’s agreements, the operators have carved up the country among themselves and stay out of each others’ territories.