New Colossus Consumes Public Interest

The Federal Communications Commission has struck another blow against the public interest with its approval of the largest cable TV merger in United States history.

The $47.5 billion buyout of AT&T by Comcast, which links the nation's largest and third-largest cable companies, respectively, will spawn a new industry giant that will be able to exert unprecedented control of both the cable TV and broadband Internet sectors, with a virtual monopoly on costs, content and service options for millions of Americans.

With more than 30 percent of the domestic cable TV marketplace, and a stranglehold on an equally large portion of the broadband Internet, the new media conglomerate will have the clout to shape the emerging multi-channel, digital TV and broadband marketplace -- because, under the FCC-approved deal, there is little recourse for consumers to get their cable or Internet service from competing providers.

The failure of both the Bush administration-controlled FCC and the Department of Justice to impose any safeguards on the merger illustrates that the agenda of big business remains unrivaled in Washington, despite the recent media and telecom financial scandals.

Under FCC Chairman Michael Powell’s "leadership," the guiding principles of the Communications Act ordering the FCC enforce the "public interest, convenience and necessity" have become not merely irrelevant, but meaningless.

The AT&T-Comcast deal is the latest case in point. There should have been safeguards to ensure competition and diversity in the cable programming market, such as real choices for Comcast broadband users, including choosing the Internet service provider of their preference. There also should have been public policies enabling local communities to share some of the benefits of digital cable. None of this is in the offing.

Above and beyond the FCC’s rubber-stamping of the AT&T-Comcast deal, there are bigger questions about whether the board has any intention of analyzing or recognizing the cultural and political implications of the new media landscape it is sanctioning.

During the past year, the Center for Digital Democracy has joined many other public interest and industry groups in urging the FCC to carefully consider the threats that the AT&T-Comcast merger would pose to competition in the cable TV and broadband marketplaces, as well as its implications for our democracy as a whole -- as a result of more consolidated editorial content and shrinking public interest programming.

No dearth of evidence of these potential threats exists. Yet in approving this merger without any public interest safeguards, the FCC has chosen to ignore those facts. Also on the FCC agenda is a worrisome Internet service provider agreement with AOL Time Warner that has implications for the future character of the net for exactly the same reasons -- the public will have face fewer choices in selecting media sources.

Behind these complex cases and seemingly obscure FCC rulings is the fact that the country’s largest communications firms are enlarging and consolidating their monopoly in their industry.

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

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