US Cable Barons And Their Power Over Us

Internet 1My Comments: Professionally, I live in the world of finance and investments. Regulation is pervasive, most likely increasing, since there is a pervasive threat of abuse by the big players. I think it would help all of us to have a level playing field, including individuals, corporate America, and society as a whole.

I cannot run my business today without the internet. My predecessors couldn’t run their businesses without newspapers and telephones. Over the years, no one had a problem keeping those industries from being dominated by a few companies who just might become monopolies.

So why is Congress apparently willing to let Comcast become a virtual monopoly without restriction?

By Edward Luce | April 13, 2014 | The Financial Times

No one in Washington seems to have the will to stop industry moguls from tightening their grip on the internet.

Imagine if one company controlled 40 per cent of America’s roads and raised tolls far in excess of inflation. Suppose the roads were potholed. Imagine too that its former chief lobbyist headed the highway sector’s federal regulator. American drivers would not be happy. US internet users ought to be feeling equally worried.

Some time in the next year, Comcast’s proposed $45.2bn takeover of Time Warner Cable is likely to be waved through by antitrust regulators. The chances are it will also get a green light from the Federal Communications Commission (headed by Tom Wheeler, Comcast’s former chief lobbyist).

The deal will give Comcast TWC control of 40 per cent of US broadband and almost a third of its cable television market.

Such concentration ought to trigger concern among the vast majority of Americans who use the internet at home and in their work lives. Yet the backlash is largely confined to a few maverick senators and policy wonks in Washington. When the national highway system was built in the 1950s, it provided the arteries of the US economy. The internet is America’s neural system – as well as its eyes and ears. Yet it is monopolised by an ever-shrinking handful of private interests.

Where does it go from here? The probability is that Comcast and the rest of the industry will further consolidate its grip on the US internet because there is no one in Washington with the will to stop it. The FCC is dominated by senior former cable industry officials. And there is barely a US elected official – from President Barack Obama down – who has not benefited from Comcast’s extensive campaign financing. As with the railway barons of the late 19th century, he who pays the piper picks the tune.

The company is brilliantly effective. Last week, David Cohen, Comcast’s genial but razor-sharp executive vice-president, batted off a US Senate hearing with the ease of a longstanding Washington insider. A half smile played over his face throughout the three-hour session. One or two senators, notably Al Franken, the Democrat from Minnesota, offered skeptical cross-examination about the proposed merger. But, for the most part, Mr. Cohen received softballs. Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina, complained that his satellite TV service was unreliable when the weather was bad. Like many of his colleagues, Mr. Graham either had little idea of what was at stake, or did not care. With interrogations like this, who needs pillow talk?

Comcast is aided by the complexity of the US cable industry. Confusion is its ally. The real game is to control the internet. But a lot of the focus has been on the merger’s impact on cable TV competition, which is largely a red herring. The TV market is in long-term decline – online video streaming is the viewing of the future.

Yet Comcast has won plaudits for saying it would divest 3m television subscribers to head off antitrust concerns. Whether that will be enough to stop it from charging monopoly prices for its TV programmes is of secondary importance. The internet is the prize.

The public’s indifference to the rise of the internet barons is also assisted by lack of knowledge. Americans are rightly proud of the fact that the US invented the internet. Few know that it was developed largely with public money by the Pentagon – or that Google’s algorithmic search engine began with a grant from the National Science Foundation. It is a classic case of the public sector taking the risk while private operators reap the gains. Few Americans have experienced the fast internet services in places such as Stockholm and Seoul, where prices are a fraction of those in the US. When South Koreans visit the US, they joke about taking an “internet holiday”.

US average speeds are as little as a tenth as fast as those in Tokyo and Singapore. Among developed economies, only Mexico and Chile are slower. Even Greeks get faster downloads.

So can anything stop the cable guy? Possibly. US history is full of optimistic examples. Among the dominant platforms of their time, only railways compare to today’s internet. The Vanderbilts and the Stanfords had the regulators in their pockets. Yet their outsize influence generated a backlash that eventually loosened their grip.

For the most part, electricity, roads and the telephone were treated as utilities and either publicly owned, or regulated in the public interest. The internet should be no exception. Much like the progressive movement that tamed the railroad barons, opposition to the US internet monopolists is starting to percolate up from the states and the cities. It is mayors, not presidents, who react to potholed roads.

Last week, Ed Murray, the mayor of Seattle, declared war on Comcast even though it donated to his election campaign last year. Drawing on the outrage among Seattle’s consumers, Mr. Murray seems happy to bite the hand that fed him. “If we find that building our own municipal broadband is the best way forward for our citizens then I will lead the way,” he said.

Others, such as the town of Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is distributing high-speed internet via electricity lines, are also doing it for themselves. Forget Washington. This is where change comes from. “We need to find a path forward as quickly as possible before we [the US] fall even further behind – our economy depends on it,” said Mr. Murray. As indeed does America’s democracy.

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