There is so much that is troubling about the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger. It’s a guaranteed disaster. That said, the time to have headed off this situation was 20 years ago. Cable systems, as they were originally conceived, were granted monopolies in their respective communities because municipal authorities envisioned dozens of companies offering TV services, each with their own wire junking up the town. They need not have worried. This is America; as much as we claim to hate monopolies and love competition, the fact is, we prefer them, and even seem to nurture them. We sat back and watched as Comcast purchased cable monopolies in community after community, until you couldn’t even move to get away from their half-assed service. The communities themselves largely gave up on even monitoring their cable franchises, and pretty much let huge companies like Comcast and Time Warner Cable do whatever they wanted. Since the two “satellite” companies came aboard and the Internet became faster, now, they claim there’s “competition.” But is there, really?
That question was rhetorical. Of course there’s no competition.
It’s time the Department of Justice did its job for once, and stop pretending there is competition in industries where there is none. Yes, that means they should block the sale of Time Warner Cable to Comcast. Not just because such a merger would create a company with far too much market power, but because of the implications in other areas of the industry. They should also reject the proposed deal between AT&T and DirecTV for the same reason. Merger-mania has reached critical mass, and it needs to be over. There is so little competition in the communications and entertainment industry, the future is actually looking a little bleak.
Consider the ever-more-important market for ever-faster broadband Internet service, which will be the key to consumer choice in the future. As of now, according to the FCC, 64 percent of Americans have a choice between their cable company or the phone company for broadband, and that’s not much of a choice. By allowing this huge merger, and allowing even more industry consolidation, it really won’t matter how you get your TV; Comcast will have a say in it. They’ll have far too much power to control programming and whether or not you get to see it. Even now, before the merger, cable and satellite companies routinely take hostages and force program delivery companies to pay ever-increasing to carry their programming, and drop them when they can’t or won’t.
While the deal Comcast recently made with Netflix really has little to do with “net neutrality,” it is still bothersome, because it will eventually lock out start-ups and entrepreneurs from competing. While that seems to have become the American Way in recent years, it’s not a good thing at all. While wireless companies and a few tech companies with huge pockets are willing to invest in new systems, broadband should be open to more competition, and it’s not.
The mistake we all made when cable TV was first conceived was that we allowed private companies to build out and maintain the network, and to take full ownership of it. We later repeated that mistake with broadband. We should have hired contractors to build out a cable TV infrastructure using taxpayer money. And each community should have built out its own computer network and connected with the Internet. You don’t do that just to save money; you do that to maintain control. We did it again with wireless phone service; we let private companies build them out, using varying standards, and they now hold us hostage. They’ve consolidated to the point that we have a choice of four companies that control everything. Building out our own networks, and then leasing them to companies would have given us control, not huge private companies that really don’t care about service, just pocketing big bucks. That could still happen, but it’ll take a sustained push on our parts to make it so.
Not only should the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger not be allowed, both companies should be forced to divest some things. For example, a cable company should not own local TV stations at the same time it’s charging other stations in the market carriage fees. They should also not be allowed to own large movie studios and production companies, and they certainly shouldn’t be allowed to own channels that compete with other channels it carries.
We keep doing this same thing over and over. We allowed everyone to act on their own in building electrical generation, and now the grid is a complete mess. We allowed private companies to develop their own wireless standards, and now that’s a mess, too, with incompatible systems and soaring prices that stop us from using our devices the way we want, despite the fact that we technically own the airwaves these wireless companies occupy. Speaking of which, look at how we’ve allowed the government to give up our ownership stake in broadcasting, and the shambles that’s become.
We need to prevent the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, but we have to do more than that. Each community needs to invest in building and maintaining a community-owned network, and free ourselves from the dangers of monopoly and corporate whim once and for all. It’s time we took back our economy. You want a future where you get to choose? All of this is a first step.