An announced $45 billion merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable — the largest and second-largest cable companies in the U.S., respectively — is under scrutiny not just for its massive size but also for its potential impact on Internet use.
Just last month, a federal court struck down the Federal Communication Commission's ability to enforce net neutrality — a regulation that makes Internet providers treat all broadband traffic equally. In theory, now that net neutrality can't be enforced, an Internet provider could give priority to its own websites or charge certain websites extra to access users.
Net neutrality advocates say this could create "a system of haves and have-nots," NPR's Elise Hu reported. "The richest companies could get access to a wider swath of Internet users, for example, and that could prevent the next Google from getting off the ground."
Comcast agreed to maintain net neutrality in 2011, when it acquired NBC Universal — that meant Comcast couldn't give preference to the content it owned. The company said Thursday that this condition of "no blocking and nondiscrimination rules" would be extended to millions of new customers under the merger.
If that's the case, the Wall Street Journal's Marketwatch reports, this merger may actually benefit net neutrality: It would give the FCC "a backdoor to enforce net neutrality on roughly a third of the nation's broadband subscribers."
But Josh Stearns at Free Press, an open-Internet advocacy organization, sees a strong downside: If Comcast's net neutrality condition expires — and it's currently set to run out in 2018 — all of those customers would be out of luck.
Nearly 80 percent of housing units have access to two Internet service providers, according to the Federal Communications Commission. But the FCC estimates that once cable Internet is upgraded across the U.S., three-fourths of the population will have only one option for very fast Internet.
The lack of competition means Comcast-Time Warner won't lose customers even if they're not happy with its net neutrality policy, Stearns says. "I don't think there's any condition that will really mitigate any damage this merger will do," he says.
The deal is expected to be inspected by federal antitrust regulators and the FCC. If both companies kept all of their existing customers, the new Comcast would service 33 million customers, The Washington Post reports. But the companies don't overlap in any market — so in any given place, the number of cable providers will stay the same.
Between the net neutrality condition and the lack of overlap, federal regulators might be appeased enough to let the merger progress. Whether customers are happy is a whole different story.