Comcast and Time Warner Cable: Regulation in a dynamic market environment

The game is on.

Spurred by strong consumer demand, broadband infrastructure providers are investing in scale and capacity to meet service demands, leading some firms to enter new markets, others to upgrade their footprint, and yet others to merge. The proposed deal between Comcast and Time Warner Cable is typical of the latter strategy to compete in this evolving rivalry. Regulators must look past the mere size of such mergers and let the competition play out when there is promise of consumer benefits, instead of halting the deal and potentially ending some of the good times in broadband.

{mosads}Merger evaluations ultimately rest on the effect of the deal on the competitive environment. It is important, then, to consider not just the current setting, but the market conditions that are around the corner. Especially in broadband, that world is looking extremely competitive.

Cheap computers, ubiquitous cell phones, and smart televisions are changing how consumers access video. TV was once the primary way to watch video, but technology has expanded everyone’s choices, leading to a shift in preferences and an ever bigger shift in expectations. The forecasted changes are leading to a new wave of investment and competitive pressure. Developing the capacity to meet these demands is part of the strategy of a merged Comcast.

To see the dynamics at play, compare the United States and Europe. U.S. households receive nearly double the broadband investment dollars as those in Europe, but they also consume nearly double the amount of data. What is the biggest reason for this? The U.S. consumes far more online video content like Netflix. As a result of Netflix, Hulu, and others, broadband providers have been forced to upgrade their networks to keep up.

Wireless networks have been undergoing similar and radical transformations. When the iPhone was first introduced, no one could predict how the data-intensive device would affect network buildouts. Yet, in the first three years, data volumes increased nearly 8,000 percent, pushing wireless carriers to adopt the newest 4G technology. Emboldened by these download speeds, a growing contingent of consumers is choosing to access broadband solely through mobile devices, thus adding a new competitor to wire broadband.

This new competitive environment is increasingly apparent. As Jessica Rosenworcel, a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission, noted, the media mergers currently underway – Comcast and TWC included – are the direct result of competition from online and other video sources. “I think all of the activity you’re seeing right now is a response to that change,” she said. Like countless others in the space, she believes that “television will change more in the next five years than it has in the last five decades.”

But merger partners are not the only ones thinking about the future of content delivery. AT&T is currently in the middle of a $14 billion upgrade to its wired and wireless broadband networks, which will in part bring a significant portion of its wired footprint on to superfast broadband, while charting a path to future upgrades.

Sadly, the competition by telephone companies is often overlooked, but doing so now would mean that dramatic improvements are ignored. CenturyLink, the third largest telecommunications company, just rolled out fiber to Seattle, and is looking to expand into the Twin Cities, Denver, and 13 other communities. AT&T is investing in fiber, as well. In addition to Austin, Dallas, Raleigh-
Durham, and Winston-Salem, they are now considering 21 other metro areas including Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, and San Francisco. Of course, any discussion of fiber must include Google, which has shaken up the entire industry with their offerings in Kansas City, Provo, and Austin. More importantly, the search company has announced that it is working closely with 34 cities across the U.S. to deploy their service in more households.

Cursory examination leads some to assert that the Comcast Time Warner Cable deal is the end of competition in broadband. A deeper examination reveals that the deal is driven by current and anticipated competition. Broadband is quickly evolving and competition emanates from countless new sources. Consumers would be best served if regulators left market competition to sort it out.

Mr. Holtz-Eakin is President of the American Action Forum.

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