It’s not surprising that Mayor Rahm Emanuel would endorse the $45 billion Comcast-Time Warner merger after getting more than $100,000 in political donations from Comcast and its executives over his career — though it does “exemplify everything that’s wrong with the way media policy is made,” as Craig Aaron, president of the Free Press, told me.
What is remarkable is that he signed his letter to the FCC just days after Comcast announced it was pulling out of negotiations to renew its city franchise and was filing for a state franchise instead. That move raises concerns over some of the issues on which Emanuel offers reassurances to the regulators, and some he ignores — customer service, universal coverage and support for public access TV.
Offering “the City of Chicago’s perspective,” Emanuel writes, he doesn’t think the proposed merger “would reduce choice, elevate prices, or otherwise harm consumers.” (He also notes, without apparent irony, that “Comcast currently makes considerable contributions in Chicago and we expect those contributions to continue — and increase — if the proposed combination is approved.”)
That’s not the view of consumer advocates and media reform groups like the Free Press, which argues, Comcast’s resulting nationwide market reach and power would lead to direct consumer harms such as higher prices and fewer choices among competitors.” Or of politicians not showered with telecom largesse, like Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who wrote the FCC of concerns that the merger could result in “increased cable prices and decreased quality of services.”
Emanuel cites Comcast’s Internet Essentials program as evidence of the company’s commitment to bridging the digital divide. The program provides low-cost computers and Internet access for $9.95 a month to families of students who get free or reduced lunches, and who aren’t already Comcast customers. But it’s come in for its fair share of criticism.
John Randall of the Roosevelt Institute has written that Internet Essentials “does more to benefit Comcast’s customer acquisition, public relations, and lobbying departments than to help people in America who need high-speed Internet access at a reasonable price.” It offers “painfully slow” Internet connections and has a variety of mechanisms to transition users to full-price customers. Meanwhile, with no additional buildout costs, Internet Essentials “represents almost pure profit for Comcast.” Originally conceived as a new profit generator, the program was held off until the Comcast-FCC merger for use as a “bargaining chip” in those negotiations, according to Randall. It’s trotted out as a “distraction” from calls to seriously address the digital divide, he writes.
“Every broadband provider should have a $9.99-a-month option,” said Aaron. “But it shouldn’t have so many hoops. That kind of program would be helpful if it were easier to get into and available to more people.”
High prices are the biggest factor in the digital divide, lack of competition is the biggest driver of high prices and further consolidation will certainly not increase competition, he said.
Meanwhile, after months of negotiations over renewal of its city franchise, Comcast withdrew and filed for a state franchise in August. That’s possible under a 2007 state law, one of dozens pushed nationally by AT&T.
A state franchise would mean that cable consumers could no longer take complaints to the city’s cable commission, which has specific regulatory authority, but would have to go to the consumer protection office of the Illinois attorney general, which handles all manner of businesses. That’s a particular concern with Comcast, which consistently rates at the bottom of customer service satisfaction surveys.
Media access activists say AG Lisa Madigan’s office has been weak on enforcement of existing provisions of the state cable law — particularly its requirement banning discrimination against public access channels. Madigan investigated but failed to take action on AT&T’s segregation of access channels on a distant submenu in its U-verse system. For its part, Comcast has refused to provide high-definition channels to access centers in Illinois.
City franchises have also offered protections not present in the state law prohibiting redlining of low-income neighborhoods and guaranteeing funding for Chicago’s public access network, CAN-TV, according to the Committee for Media Access, which has called on the mayor and City Council to hold hearings on Comcast’s state franchise.
A revised state cable law passed two years ago — which sunsets in 2015 — contained restrictions on funding for public access, pushed by cable lobbyists (who also wanted restrictions on programming). Chicago was exempted from those restrictions, but a city ordinance covering funding of CAN-TV out of state franchise fees is still in the works.
In other states, those kinds of restrictions have led to the closing of at least 100 cable access centers, with hundreds more at risk of closure, according to a 2011 report from the Alliance for Communications Democracy. That seems to be the goal of the industry — recapturing bandwidth. Comcast closed 13 public access stations in Ilinois from 2005 to 2011, and this year they shut down an access center in Skokie.
So when the state cable law comes up again in Springfield, whose interests will our elected officials represent — their communities or their contributors?
“These companies get so big and powerful they basically feel they can tell everybody to drop dead,” said Gordon Quinn of Kartemquin Films, a founder of CAN-TV and member of CMA. Cable access centers are “a vibrant part of the media mix,” he said. “They allow a lot of community voices to be heard.”
Phyllis Logan of the West Side NAACP — which has hosted a call-in show and broadcast candidate forums and other events on CAN-TV for 10 years— echoes that sentiment. “It allows us to speak on the issues that concern us in our community, and it gives us access to many audiences that we wouldn’t have otherwise,” she said. No other media outlet does that, she added.
Correction: The city’s cable commission was eliminated two years ago. Also, the Business Affairs and Consumer Protection’s cable division will still handle consumer cable complaints in collaboration with the state attorney general’s office as circumstances warrant.