Big Win for Net Neutrality? How the Comcast-Time Warner Deal Can Help Save the Open Internet

Comcast needs government approval for its merger — a chance for regulators to leverage an extension of Net Neutrality protections

If you think Comcast’s $45.2 billion deal for Time Warner Cable sounds like a blow to Net Neutrality, think again.

Since a merging Comcast-TWC will require government approval, regulators have a new, powerful leverage point to help secure Net Neutrality conditions for a significant chunk of the Internet.

Back when Comcast made its deal for NBC Universal, regulators won concessions on Net Neutrality — assurances that Internet service providers won’t discriminate against competitors’ content — that now expire in January 2018. An extension of those provisions will surely be  part of negotiations over the latest merger.

Comcast officials on Thursday declined to say whether they’d negotiate to extend those conditions.

The Federal Communications Commission has faced a long legal fight over any effort to enact Net Neutrality-like limits, or to impose sanctions on internet service providers who discriminate against certain Web sites. An appellate court panel recently invalidated the FCC’s Open Intenet Rules even as it ruled the FCC had authority to act.

Also read: Federal Appeals Court Overturns FCC’s Net Neutrality Rules

In approving Comcast’s deal for NBC Universal in January, 2011, the agency and the Justice Department found another way to implement Net Neutrality: As one of the conditions in the settlement, Comcast “voluntarily” agreed to follow the requirements of the FCC’s Open Internet rules, even if they were later overturned by a court, as it turned out they were.

That means that 23 million Comcast subscribers still have Net Neutrality-like protections; and if the deal goes through, 8 million more TWC subscribers will get the same protection. Comcast has said the deal would give it slightly less than 30 percent of US cable subscribers.

Before he became FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler wrote in a blog post about the FCC’s review of AT&T’s deal for T-Mobile the the commission needed to be more aggressive in using the deal-approval process for winning policy concessions.

Also read: Democrats Propose Net Neutrality Legislation That Would Buy Time for the FCC

The Net Neutrality condition was just one among a number of similar “voluntary” conditions regulators won in 2011. Others prevent Comcast from discriminating against potential rivals that want to offer “over the top” video services; and seek to limit Comcast’s ability to put competing cable channels in channel positions far away from each other.

Consumer group officials said Thursday that while they are pushing to get the deal rejected, they expected extension of many of the NBC Universal conditions to be pursued by regulators.

Comcast Executive VP David L. Cohen said Thursday that Comcast is hopeful that the FCC will come up with a way to implement its Open Internet concerns before the FCC finishes its review of the deal — and thus the conditions won’t be a factor in the deal’s approval. He declined to say whether Comcast would consider extending the current conditions if no agreement is reached.