Comcast coughs up data

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Policy


Comcast Corp. has some explaining to do about its Internet policies, thanks to a massive new data request from federal regulators looking into the cable giant’s deal to acquire Time Warner Cable.

It took Federal Communications Commission staff 29 pages to list the 93 questions and requests for data they want from Comcast* for their review of the deal. The agency sent similar, if smaller, data requests to Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications, which wants to acquire subscribers from Comcast as part of its effort to jettison some coverage areas to placate the government.

Seventeen of the questions or data requests in the FCC’s inquiry were related to Comcast’s Internet policies, including its use of data caps, traffic management, middle-mile Internet interconnection deals and net neutrality policies as well as data related to complaints from Netflix and Level 3  about Comcast.

“[T]he Company’s decisions whether to block, stop, throttle, slow, favor, congest or otherwise hinder the transmission of any (online video distributor) service or other content, including the (content delivery network), transit service provider or peer that supports the (online video distributor) service or to favor, prioritize or otherwise advantage the Company’s relevant service over such competing service …”

The data request is nothing unusual — the agency always asks for reams of data from companies seeking approval of mergers — but it can sometimes offer insight into what issues regulators are considering as they decide whether to approve a deal or impose conditions. The Justice Department is also reviewing the deal but it does not make its data requests public.

“This is just another standard step in the review process, and we look forward to continuing to work with the Commission as the process moves forward,” Comcast said in a statement.

As in the past, agency officials asked for a significant amount of data that shows Comcast’s reach across the U.S., including the number of subscribers per zip code, the typical number of subscribers they sign up and lose every month, the number of Spanish-language households and the number of video and high-speed Internet competitors.

They also asked for information about Comcast’s “most favored nation” contracts — contractual agreements that give cable operators the lowest price for TV channels — as well as details about it’s ability “to exert influence or control” over Hulu, the online TV streaming service that Comcast has an ownership interest in. Both are issues that regulators examined in detail four years ago when Comcast was acquiring NBCUniversal.

Among the other questions:

  • Corporate synergies? The agency wants Comcast to describe “in detail” how the merger (to quote Comcast) “should result in cost savings and other synergies worth approximately $1.5 billion in increased earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization within three years, and recurring every year thereafter” and “approximately $400 million in capital expense efficiencies.”
  • Sports programming: FCC officials asked for details about Comcast’s ownership interests in regional sports networks and how that would change if it bought Time Warner Cable. This is an area that also came up four years ago when Comcast was trying to acquire NBCUniversal. Since local sports are must-have channels for pay-TV operators, regulators want to make sure Comcast isn’t using its ownership in the channels for an unfair competitive advantage. It’s also an issue that has risen to the forefront recently because of Time Warner Cable’s ongoing dispute with other pay-TV providers in Los Angeles over the amount it wants them to pay for access to SportsNet LA, which airs Dodgers games.
  • Customer satisfaction: This should be interesting, given Comcast’s historic problems with keeping subscribers happy and given some recent customer service gaffes that Comcast has committed. (Comcast won it’s second “golden poo” award in April.) FCC staffers want to know about any studies or information the company has about “how consumers, [pay-TV providers] and [streaming video providers] view or perceive video programming offered by the Company” as well as “consumer satisfaction with the Company’s relevant services.”

The companies have until September 11 to provide the data to the agency. Initial comments to the agency from the public and other companies about whether the agency should approve the deal, or what conditions to impose, are due Monday.

* Comcast’s NBCUniversal unit is an investor in Revere Digital, Re/code’s parent company.



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