Advocacy Groups Rap Comcast Contact With FCC

With the Federal Communications Commission set to rule as early this week on Comcast’s merger with AT&T Broadband, two consumer groups are attempting to slow what appears to be the inevitable approval by questioning Comcast President Brian Roberts’ contact with FCC officials, including Chairman Michael Powell, last week.

On Oct. 28, Roberts urged Powell to permit AT&T and Comcast to keep its Interest service provider (ISP) agreement with AOL Time Warner out of public review. ISPs and consumer groups want the AOL TW agreement to be opened to public comment as part of the FCC’s review of the merger, which combines the largest and third-largest (AT&T Broadband and Comcast, respectively) cable networks, putting its potential broadband user reach well beyond its closest competitor, AOL TW.

Roberts noted the “highly proprietary, confidential nature” of the AOL TW agreement has no “relevance to the merger review.”

The Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) and the Media Access Project (MAP), two Washington-based advocacy groups, said the contact between Roberts and the FCC “typifies the behind the scene insider lobbying of special interest national politics.”

While the terms of the agreement have not been made public, published reports claim AOL TW gives Comcast as much as $38 per subscriber and that AOL TW has agreed to not compete with Comcast in some markets.

The CDD, MAP and their allies believe that the contract is material to the merger process and may “reflect new concerns about competition and the free flow of information” on Comcast’s broadband network, as well as creating a “dangerous precedent against openness and nondiscrimination” on the Internet as a whole.

“Mr. Roberts is about to assume the position of America’s most powerful media executive, responsible for supplying access to news and information networks to citizens and consumers through both cable TV and online. His unwillingness to engage in an open and forthcoming matter about this crucial matter raises serious questions about whether he and Comcast can be trusted with such a unique responsibility,” said Jeff Chester, CDD’s executive director. “Both Steve Case and Richard Parsons should also be pressed to make this contract public. Given AOL TW’s poor track record in failing to disclose to the SEC and others relevant information, they should be more forthcoming.”

Although opening the deal to public scrutiny wouldn’t endanger the merger, the advocacy groups hope to re-open the debate on ISPs access to cable companies and the power of cable companies to control the broadband market.

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