In Comcast/Time Warner Merger, Public Interest Is Paramount

New York State's Public Service Commission (PSC) is currently reviewing Comcast's plan to purchase Time Warner Cable for over $45 billion, a merger which would link the nation's two largest cable companies. This merger has the potential to affect millions of New Yorkers who rely on Time Warner Cable for TV, phone, and internet access at home and at their place of business. As a result, it is critical that state and federal regulators review the proposal to determine whether it is truly in the best interests of consumers.

On Monday, I submitted testimony to the PSC, urging it to do just that. For Comcast, this is an opportunity to do the right thing by introducing itself to the New York market as a company that values equitable access and understands that its product--the fourth utility of the modern age--must be available to all New Yorkers. If Comcast fails to provide a detailed, practical plan to both address the ongoing digital divide in New York City and ensure its long-term commitment to net neutrality, the PSC should reject the merger.

As Gotham's residents know all too well, our city is stuck in an internet stone age. According to a study by the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, New Yorkers not only endure slower internet service than similar cities in other parts of the world, but we also pay higher prices for that substandard service.

Today, nearly 3 million New York City residents lack internet access at home and many entrepreneurs who hoped to launch businesses in former industrial districts within the five boroughs have had to abandon (PDF) those plans after discovering high-speed internet connections were not available.

While there is a significant digital divide in New York on socioeconomic lines, the truth is that no neighborhood is immune from poor internet. As a report (PDF) I issued last year found, from Tribeca to Tompkinsville, the Upper East Side to East Flatbush, the South Bronx to Sheepshead Bay, communities across the city and throughout the state are affected by poor broadband.

To date, Comcast's effort to close the digital divide have focused on its "Internet Essentials" program, which provides internet access to low-income Americans for $10 a month. However, the program's limited eligibility has kept connectivity beyond the reach of millions of Americans. For instance, the program is not offered to childless couples or low-income individuals.

A recent analysis of customers in Time Warner Cable's service area found that of the 4.6 million households that earn less than the amount that would qualify them for the federal government's free and reduced-price lunch program, only 1.7 million would qualify for Internet Essentials.

The PSC should press Comcast to significantly expand the reach of Internet Essentials and to provide a concrete outreach plan to communities that have low rates of internet use.

Comcast not only has a duty to work to close the digital divide, but also must ensure that the internet remains a place where all people can engage in robust discussion on an equal footing and where the power of ideas, rather than the size of one's pocketbook, guides the marketplace. That's why the PSC must carefully examine Comcast's commitment to net neutrality.

In recent months, Comcast has squeezed additional payment out of content providers, such as Netflix, in exchange for preferential access to its network.

This type of arrangement is concerning, because if fiber-optic networks are up for sale to the highest bidder, it both threatens to undermine the entrepreneurial energy of the internet and could also lead to higher prices for consumers to access content. Simply put: a merger without a commitment to the principles of net neutrality is not in the public interest.

Under a new law signed by Governor Cuomo in April, cable companies must affirmatively demonstrate that mergers are in the public interest in order to secure approval.

As a result, the PSC has a duty to hold Comcast's feet to the fire and ensure that its proposed merger with Time Warner will not only protect consumers, but will contribute to an internet infrastructure that can support a 21st century economy in all five boroughs.