Comcast and Time Warner Cable have been treating their merger as a foregone conclusion ever since they announced their betrothal in February. And with the companies cozying up to regulators, dropping huge piles of cash on lobbyists and campaign contributions, and making themselves look as good as possible, it’s not hard to see why the execs at the top would be feeling confident. But the FCC has just made a few key hires that make it look like the agency might actually push back against Comcast’s financial onslaught.
The FCC announced (PDF) the teams that will review the Comcast/TWC and AT&T/DirecTV mergers this week, and the names on that list are not exactly merger pushovers. Jamillia Ferris, William Rogerson, and Shane Greenstein will be joining FCC attorneys to work on the mergers. All three will be involved on the AT&T/DirecTV case, and Rogerson and Greenstein will also be working on Comcast/TWC.
Rogerson is an economist who will be serving as the senior economist reviewing both potential transactions. He was the FCC’s chief economist in the late 1990s, but his work from 2010 is more relevant. As Ars Technica points out, Rogerson was an adamant critic against the Comcast buyout of NBCUniversal.
In 2010, Rogerson submitted comments (PDF) to the FCC about Comcast’s plan to buy NBC, saying that it would cause significant harms in the marketplace. His remarks concluded:
NBCU is solely in the programming business but Comcast is in both the programming business and the MVPD [television distribution] business. From an economic perspective, this means that the proposed combination has both horizontal and vertical aspects and that a complete economic analysis of the potential competitive harms must consider the possibility of competitive harm arising from either of its two aspects. For the reasons that I have described, I believe that the transaction will likely cause significant competitive harm of both types.
Those issues of both vertical and horizontal leverage first raised during the Comcast/NBCU merger remain highly relevant to the regulators considering whether to extend Comcast’s reach across even more of the country.
Ars also points out that Hillary Burchuk, who has been named to head the working team reviewing the Comcast/TWC merger, was one of the Justice Department attorneys who helped block AT&T’s move to merge with T-Mobile back in 2011.
A telecom industry analyst told the Washington Post that it appeared FCC chairman Tom Wheeler was making an intentional point with the hires. “I think the chairman’s message is that these deals will not be a cakewalk,” he told the Post. He said that outside hires to review big mergers aren’t unusual, “but these particular officials certainly bring heavy-duty antitrust expertise.”
The Comcast/TWC merger could change the way you access everything, bring broadband data caps to 80% of the country, and make an entirely uncompetitive situation even worse. Over half the country thinks it’s a terrible idea, and there are a big pile of reasons why regulators should block it.
Whether or not the FCC will approve a merger, and in what form if so, remains to be seen. But at least the new hires are an indication that the agency plans to take a serious look at the implications, and may not wave it right through.