Friday, February 14, 2014

A Free Pass for Comcast to Acquire Time Warner, Because They Don't Compete With Each Other?

            Two rationales supporting the Comcast acquisition of Time Warner don’t make sense to me. 

First Comcast touts the existence of Netflix, Hulu and Google as ample evidence that content competition exists.  Of course the two sources of content mentioned reach end users primarily via last mile broadband providers like Comcast.  Goggle Fiber serves three metropolitan areas and is nothing more than a test and demonstration project that Gigabit fiber is commercially and technically viable. 

Would Comcast meddle with Netflix traffic, say to tilt the competitive playing field in favor of Comcast’s pay per view options?   Why would it, particularly if in a two-sided market total revenues might decline if Comcast were to retard broadband demand?  So Comcast would have no incentive to throttle traffic and otherwise mess with the traffic of content competitors who need its network to reach end users.

Does this rationale pass the smell test?  Was Comcast merely “experimenting” with network management techniques when it previously meddled with peer-to-peer traffic?  Why are retail broadband carriers demanding surcharge payments from Netflix on top of the transit payments they receive from Content Distribution Networks like Level 3, plus the end user subscriptions that have three digit margins? 

Absent a four year network neutrality commitment as part of its acquisition of NBC, profit maximizing Comcast surely would try to squeeze every last dollar, particularly from competitors who need its downstream delivery.  Remember what Ann and Gordon told us: “Greed is good.”

Second, Comcast asserts that because it does not compete with Time Warner, no one should worry about lost competition and consumer welfare.  Would not a more concentrated cable television market have even less likelihood that some operator somewhere would experiment with new pricing models, e.g., offering ala carte channel access in lieu of bloated channel bundles? Isn’t it easier for Comcast to reduce the broadband value proposition by capping download allotments and upselling higher amounts, or agreeing not to debit the now single digit Gigabyte allotment in exchange for a surcharge paid by content sources?  Note that AT&T Wireless announced such a "toll free data” option just a few weeks ago.

Bottom line: Comcast may not compete with Time Warner, but a bigger Comcast makes it more likely that the company can claw back consumer welfare gains and reduce the value proposition of both cable television and broadband subscriptions without significant customer churn.

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