- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 24, 2002

A panel of U.S. senators yesterday voiced skepticism about Comcast Corp.'s proposed purchase of AT&T; Broadband and said they would need to be convinced the merger would not harm consumers.
Comcast President and Chief Executive Officer Brian Roberts told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the merger of Philadelphia-based Comcast and AT&T; Broadband would speed the deployment of high-speed Internet and cable telephone service.
But committee members expressed concern over how the merger, which would create the nation's largest cable provider, would affect competition. Cable rates already have increased three times the rate of inflation over the past five years.
"There are some serious issues that need to be looked at," said Sen. Herb Kohl, Wisconsin Democrat and the committee's chairman. "Big is not bad, but we can't ignore the potential for a cable company as big as AT&T-Comcast; to throw its weight around."
Comcast and AT&T; Broadband said the merger could stop cable-rate increases, because deployments of other services seen as one culprit for the increases would be done more quickly and cheaply.
A combined Comcast and AT&T; Broadband company would serve 33 million subscribers, well under the current ownership limit, which is under review by the Federal Communications Commission.
Committee members yesterday did not indicate the proposed merger would violate any antitrust laws. But they said concerns that the merger was anti-competitive could be quelled through agreements similar to those made by AOL and Time Warner during their merger in early 2001. Specifically, committee members said they would like Comcast and AT&T; Broadband to guarantee consumers a choice of Internet providers on its high-speed network.
"The parties have promised that they will let consumers choose who will provide them their Internet but they have been unwilling to make the promise binding," Mr. Kohl said. "AOL Time Warner made the promise binding as a condition of their merger, why shouldn't these parties?"
Mr. Roberts countered by noting that his company would begin offering competing service from United Online, the owners of NetZero and Juno services, on its high-speed network in Indianapolis and Nashville, Tenn., with plans for a further rollout.
Furthermore, Mr. Roberts said, bringing in competing providers on the AOL Time Warner cable network was more necessary, given the company's ownership of America Online, the nation's top Internet service provider.
"I would submit that we're not AOL Time Warner," Mr. Roberts said. "Comcast has about a total of 1 million internet connections. AOL has 30 million."
The cost of programming was an issue yesterday as well.
While Comcast blamed increases in programming costs for cable rate increases, smaller, competing cable firms said they were concerned that the proposed would make some Comcast or AT&T-owned; stations too expensive. Comcast owns several sports networks and has programming interests in QVC, E! Entertainment, Discovery Health Network and Style.
"The merger parties have previously shown they are willing to use their control over programming to suppress competition in the market for multichannel video distribution services," Mark Haverkate, president and chief executive officer of WideOpenWest, a competing cable company, told the committee.

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