Consumer Advocates Unite with Rivals to Corral Comcast

27 July 2005

Comcast, America's largest cable operation - set to become larger yet with its joint acquisition (alongside Time Warner) of bankrupt Adelphia Communications - is under fire from a motley mix of critics anxious to limit its oligarchical powers.

One such critic is the Media Access Project, a non-profit public interest telecommunications law firm which promotes the public's First Amendment right to hear and be heard on the electronic media of today and tomorrow.

Accuses MAP president Andrew Jay Schwartzman: "Comcast has a leave-no-prisoners approach that upsets people." He, along with commercial rivals and other objectors, have petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to block or impose conditions on the Comcast-Adelphia deal.

They argue that the Comcast/TW union will enjoy near-monopoly power in key markets after dividing Adelphia's 5.2 million subscribers and exchanging some systems.

Despite this, they fear that regulators will greeenlight the carve-up: "There's very little risk it won't be approved," believes Scott Cleland, ceo of investment research specialist Precursor Group .

Even News Corporation, itself not averse to monopolistic tendencies, is concerned on behalf of its DirecTV unit.

The latter is demanding the FCC require Comcast and Time Warner to submit to arbitration in the event of a programming dispute - a condition imposed on NewsCorp in 2003 when it acquired DirecTV. "We're prohibited from doing what they can do. There's a perversion there," whinges DirecTV's Susan Eid.

Likewise, consumer advocates urge the imposition of rules to ensure outsiders have access to the cable companies' internet lines and video-on-demand services.

Comcast, clearly believing the best form of defense to be attack, castigated its critics, dismissing their case as "largely unsupported and often unfocused arguments." In the case of DirecTV, says Comcast evp David Cohen, the program-access conditions "were to mirror the ones already put on us."

Observers expect this pot to continue boiling well into the foreseeable future.

Data sourced from USA Today Online; additional content by WARC staff