FCC likely to hire outsider to oversee NBC-Comcast review

The FCC may soon hire an outsider to oversee its review of Comcast's bid for NBC, in part to free up the commission's resources so that it may focus primarily on its new broadband agenda. 

The ink is hardly dry on that contract, and details about who would lead the review, under whose purview the coordinator would fall and how long his or her contract would last still remain unclear. But a source with knowledge of the situation did tell Hillicon Valley on Sunday that both NBC and Comcast had already been informed of the FCC's forthcoming announcement.

An FCC spokeswoman declined to comment on the matter this weekend.

Typically, FCC chiefs task their own staff with such reviews, though they do occasionally outsource their work -- most recently with the National Broadband Plan, released in March, which Blair Levin chiefly shepherded. 

But the NBC-Comcast deal presented the commission with a new challenge: how to coordinate a merger that "goes across bureaus," requires input from more than one of the FCC's divisions and touches everything from Web video to cable television, according to an informed source. 

Outside help was consequently thought of as one way to keep the commission on track, the source added. That shift would at the same time free up other FCC staff members to focus their efforts on the National Broadband Plan, roughly over a month after a federal court ruled the FCC did not have sufficient authority regulate broadband providers.

A D.C. court decided unanimously in that case that the commission was wrong to sanction Comcast, after the Philadelphia-based cable giant throttled its users' access to Bit Torrent and other file-sharing sites. While that ruling has since jeopardized the FCC's new broadband agenda, specifically its net neutrality goals, a source with knowledge of the situation said the case had no bearing on the commission's move to hire an outsider to handle the Comcast-NBC merger.

Still, the news arrives weeks after the FCC softened its upcoming deadline by which public groups and interested consumers must submit comments about the merger, which has been subject to intense congressional scrutiny. 

FCC chiefs granted that extension to allow Comcast more time to prepare information on the merger's likely effects on consumers and competitors. Comcast, meanwhile, has promised to finish its research as soon as possible.