Award Winning Blog

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Scale and the Comcast-TWC Acquisition

           Former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt hosts The Digital Show on Business Radio 24/7-- Business Talk from Wharton, channel 111 on Sirius/XM satellite radio.  He invites major thinkers on telecom and Internet issues to chat Mondays from 5-7 p.m. in the Eastern time zone.

            On March 10th, the program featured prominent buy side analyst Craig Moffett, Comcast E.V.P. David Cohen, Free Press Policy Director Matt Wood and yours truly.  I wish Sirius/XM archived the program, because you would hear the points for and against the Comcast-TWC acquisition in an understandable and comprehensible forum.
            Each presenter made his arguments effectively. Mr. Cohen offered the view that the acquisition is not such a big deal, particularly in light of the fact that Comcast and TWC “don’t compete,” while Comcast operates in a fiercely competitive marketplace for both video content and Internet access.

            Clearly Comcast does not operate as a charity, but Mr. Cohen recognized the duty to make the case for the deal based on some articulation of how the public benefits, or at least is “not threatened.” He emphasized that Comcast needs to acquire even greater scale to operate effectively and to provide consumers with the best quality of service, a robust research and development budget and a wealth of next generation services, including a new state of the art set top box.  He did not mention the prospect for lower prices even though larger scale may support the company’s ability to extract lower content prices and better Internet peering terms, in the same manner as Walmart. 

            Chairman Hundt used the phrase “balloon squeezing” to provide a visual reference for the enhanced ability of the company to reduce its costs even as smaller ventures incur higher prices for access to the same content and Internet network links.

            Mr. Cohen provided clarity on why the company wants to acquire greater market share in the video and broadband marketplace.  The merged company would serve about 30 million cable television and broadband households. In broadband, the company’s market share will likely grow significantly in light of the fact that Digital Subscriber Line service cannot increase bit transmission speeds to satisfy growing demand for video downloading.  Additionally, AT&T and Verizon have largely refrained from investing more funds to expand their high speed, digital fiber or hybrid copper/fiber networks.  So Comcast can only improve its ability to extract even higher payments from retail subscribers, particularly broadband users likely to face lower downloading allowances and more expensive tiers of service.  The company also can extract additional peering and transiting payments from upstream ISPs and content providers as evidenced by the recent paid peering deal with Netflix.  Also the company has greater “balloon squeezing” leverage with content providers, far greater than even Google.  That megafirm won’t have anything near the scale of Comcast even with an expanded footprint of 37 or so metropolitan areas.

            Case closed?  Matt Wood offered a fine rebuttal and the case for the FCC and Department of Justice to reject the deal.  The scale argument and the lack of competition among Comcast and TWC stand as two major elements why the issue of bigness is threatening to consumers and to a robustly competitive marketplace.  Standing as a toll bridge or bottleneck  operator between consumers and content sources, Comcast would have even greater leverage to extract higher charges without having to enhance the value proposition on either side.

            My concern focused on what happens when Comcast can buy out a significant player in the cable and broadband marketplace.  The fact that operators like Comcast and TWC have implicitly agreed not to compete (a mutual non-aggression pact) does not mean that their combination will lack impact.  Without TWC, cable and broadband companies have even less incentives to innovate and to sharpen their pricing pencils.

            Consider the wireless marketplace with a company like T-Mobile and one where AT&T acquired the company.  In the former, consumers benefit by having the fourth among equals forced—perhaps kicking and screaming— to compete aggressively.  In just a few weeks T-Mobile departed from conscious parallelism—simply duplicating the price points and service terms of AT&T and Verizon—to becoming an innovator.  The company has made a huge impact with lower rates for consumers who bring their own devices, roam internationally and want to change carriers in fewer than every two years.

            With its acquisition of TWC, the odds decline even further for a maverick innovator to offer a better value proposition for consumers, e.g., the opportunity to pick and choose networks on an a la carte basis instead of a large “enhanced basic” tier of channels.  Who would evidence “best practices” when doing so results in sleepless afternoons competing and the potential for being targeted by Comcast for balloon squeezing?

            Matt Wood made a series of convincing arguments that most consumers will suffer from the deal, but I would not bet against conditional approval in this politicized, pay to play environment.