Saturday, February 13, 2016

Cable customers learning what's in it for them

A break on Internet service for low-income Comcast customers would be a good deal.

Cable customers learning what's in it for them

The GE building , home of NBC Universal in New York, towers over Rockefeller Center. NBCU owns cable channels, the NBC broadcast-TV network, Universal movie studio, theme parks.
The GE building , home of NBC Universal in New York, towers over Rockefeller Center. NBCU owns cable channels, the NBC broadcast-TV network, Universal movie studio, theme parks. MARK LENNIHAN / Associated Press, File

With Comcast Corp.'s offer to provide low-income families with monthly Internet service for $9.95, the cable giant's proposed megamerger with NBC Universal promises some benefits to a slice of customers.

The low-cost Internet deal covers a three-year period. It would look even better if it were a permanent offer, with an assurance the price for such services couldn't rise by more than the inflation rate.

For now, the Federal Communications Commission seems poised to accept this gesture by Comcast to help bridge the so-called digital divide - a deal that also includes a pledge by the cable giant to make computers available to these customers for $150 each.

Along with other consumer-friendly terms taking shape - and other conditions imposed by regulators to preserve competition in the emerging field of web-based video - the Comcast-NBC merger looks like it will be approved.

A vote by the FCC is expected as early as January, resulting in a $30 billion merger that will combine the nation's biggest cable TV provider with a network and movie studio. In the bargain, Comcast would gain popular cable channels including USA, Bravo, and MSNBC, along with a share in a hot video site, Hulu.

The move should be good for Philadelphia, where Comcast is a rare national headquarters presence. In addition to being a major employer, its office tower is a signature presence in Center City. Under chairman and CEO Brian L. Roberts, Comcast has become a valued corporate citizen.

That said, the broader concerns about cable and Internet consolidation that results in steady rate hikes are real - and they continue to fuel outspoken opposition to the merger.

Fortunately, the yearlong FCC review and ongoing antitrust scrutiny by the Department of Justice has produced many terms that should help prevent a Comcast-NBCU marriage from stifling competitors - key to keeping prices down for cable and Web customers.

These include provisions against hoarding NBCU programs from online competitors, abiding by net neutrality principles, and fair placement of competing channels on the cable dial.

For its part, Comcast contends the merger will produce "cost efficiencies, which create incentives for Comcast to lower prices for certain services." No doubt, all customers would like to see that pledge translated to the bottom line of their monthly bills.

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