Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) has long been a strong supporter of network neutrality, frequently speaking out against proposed ventures that violate this stance. From the get-go, Senator Franken was opposed to the 2010 merger between Comcast and NBC Universal, seeing the joint venture as a violation of antitrust laws. It now seems that his fears about the future goals of Comcast were not unwarranted, prompting him to fire off a letter to the Federal Communications Commitment and the Department of Justice calling for an investigation into the company’s practices.
In the letter Franken urged both agencies to reexamine the Comcast Acquisition of NBC Universal, writing, “Anticompetitive business practices hurt consumers by reducing competition and raising prices for services Minnesotans rely on every day. When the Obama administration signed off on Comcast’s merger with NBC Universal, it laid out a set of rules to prevent Comcast from squashing its competitors – including popular cable alternatives – and hurting consumers who have seen rapidly rising cable rates over the last several years. If Comcast is violating the administration’s orders, it should face significant penalties so consumers know they can count on the administration to protect it from anticompetitive conduct that could mean higher bills.”
To support antitrust claim, Franken cited a multitude of suspect Comcast business practices: its favorable broadband carriage of own “Xfinity on Demand” service as one area of major concern; Comcast’s relationship with Bloomberg News as another; and its dealings with online video distributors as another; Comcast’s spectrum and joint marketing proposal with Verizon Wireless as another; and its announcement that its bandwidth caps would not include data sent through Xfinity’s Xbox 360 app as yet another.
Franken berated the FCC and the DOJ, asserting, “Your agencies were keenly aware that Comcast would have every incentive to violate net neutrality principles by prioritizing or advantaging its cable and video on demand service,” thus bringing to the forefront Comcast’s violation of a condition of its merger. In the agreement, the Department of Justice prohibited Comcast from measuring, counting, or otherwise treating “affiliated network traffic differently from unaffiliated network traffic.”
Franken argues that Comcast positions itself to shut out potentially better services due to its unparalleled power as an internet provider, writing that its treatment of data “will almost certainly drive consumers to Comcast’s Xfinity Streampix, rather other internet video streaming services”. After all, the FCC and the DOJ are government agencies responsible for protecting the consumer. By treating this network traffic differently, Comcast essentially offers free data with its metered service, creating an unequal playing field and fostering an environment that increases the barriers to innovation and prohibiting competition.
Despite these strong words, Senator Franken admits that he’s not sure whether the plan is technically a violation of the conditions of the merger. Comcast says that its actions are lawful, “since the content is being delivered over our private IP network and not the public Internet”. However, he’s strongly urging the FCC and DOJ to investigate the issues raiseed, saying that it “raises serious questions about how Comcast will favor its own content and services to the detriment of its competitors.”
Senator Franken wrapped up his argument with stern recommendations suggesting penalties and other actions the FCC and DOJ should take, stating, “I urge your agencies to thoroughly review these issues and act quickly and vigorously to address any violations of your respective orders. If you determine that Comcast is in violation of your orders, I recommend you seriously consider substantial fines and penalties, as well as an extension of time for the relevant condition to dissuade Comcast from engaging in this type of behavior going forward.”
What’s more, Franken blatantly criticized the Commission for it’s sluggish responses to blatantly anticompetitive business moves: “I also urge your agencies to work together to develop a faster, more comprehensive strategy for monitoring and enforcing behavioral conditions on this and other mergers. If your agencies are going to approve large telecommunications and media mergers based in part on the conditions that are imposed on the transaction, the public needs to be assured that your agencies are carefully monitoring and reviewing these transactions to ensure corporations are complying with the obligations you imposed.”