Comcast merger under fire on K St.

Comcast merger under fire on K St.
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Opponents of a planned merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable are flexing their K Street muscle in an attempt to quash the blockbuster deal.

The $45 billion proposal has drawn the ire of consumer rights groups, unions and companies in the cable and broadband industries since it was announced last February.

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Now, as a decision from federal regulators draws closer, groups are ratcheting up their attacks with new hired guns.

The Stop Mega-Comcast Coalition registered with Glover Park Group in recent weeks to help it lobby the federal government. The coalition comprises an unlikely collection of interests, including Glenn Beck’s television station The Blaze, companies like Dish Network, watchdog groups such as Public Knowledge and Common Cause, and writers unions. 

“Stop Mega-Comcast launched at the right time because it was when the evidence was in and the regulators were focused on analyzing that evidence,” said Jeff Blum, a senior vice president and deputy general counsel at Dish.

On Monday, the trade group Comptel announced a separate alliance of companies and groups against the merger, dubbed Networks for Competition and Choice, to expand its advocacy efforts on Capitol Hill and within the administration. 

Comptel CEO Chip Pickering, a former Republican congressman from Mississippi, leads the coalition that includes The Independent Telephone & Telecommunications Alliance (ITTA) and NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association.

In their lobbying fight, the groups face Comcast’s sophisticated $17 million per year lobbying operation. The company employs 38 outside lobby shops to work on various issues, including the merger.

The highest paid of those firms features Christopher Putala, who worked as a lobbyist at CTIA-The Wireless Association more than a decade ago when Tom Wheeler, the current chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, served as the trade group’s chief executive. He also served as a lobbyist at Earthlink while Wheeler was on the board of directors. Comcast paid Putala Strategies $400,000 last year.

The Stop-Mega Comcast Coalition comes armed with its own former officials: Gene Kimmelman, the leader of Public Knowledge, once worked as a former senior attorney in the Justice Department’s antitrust division. 

Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps is a special adviser to Common Cause and was the only FCC official to vote against Comcast’s last merger proposal, with NBC Universal, approved in 2011.

While the coalitions have harnessed some of the most vocal critics of a Comcast-Time Warner Cable combo, other companies have more quietly been involved on K Street.

Netflix, which has been critical of the deal, hired its first outside lobby shop last fall after deregistering with all its firms in 2013. The firm, Corley Consulting, reported working on several issues for the company, including “telecommunications mergers,” according to disclosure forms that don’t mention Comcast specifically. The company would not speak more about its lobbying efforts. It is a member of Comptel but is not named in any coalition against the merger.

If approved, the deal could put “a tremendous amount of power in one company,” Netflix founder Reed Hastings said in a recent call with industry analysts. “We think it would be wise policy for the U.S. to block that merger.”

Discovery Communications filed comments last year with the FCC citing “serious concerns” with Comcast’s proposal. In July, it registered with Glover Park Group to lobby on “pending media transactions,” according to disclosure forms.

The company told The Hill, however, that it has not opposed the merger. 

While the FCC is also dealing with the issue of net neutrality and another merger proposal between AT&T and DirecTV, it could come out with its verdict on Comcast by summer. A separate Justice Department determination process is private, which makes predicting a timeline for its decision more difficult.

Members from each of the two newly formed coalitions have been having meetings on Capitol Hill and sending letters urging more lawmakers to come out in opposition. While Congress does not have a say in whether the deal goes through, it is able to press regulators.

Most of the concerns have come from congressional Democrats, though Republicans, including Sens. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeSchumer ramps up filibuster fight ahead of Jan. 6 anniversary Juan Williams: The GOP is an anti-America party Manchin faces pressure from Gillibrand, other colleagues on paid family leave MORE (Utah) and Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyBig Tech critics launch new project Senate antitrust bill has serious ramifications for consumers and small businesses Hillicon Valley: Amazon's Alabama union fight — take two MORE (Iowa), have also questioned the merger. Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has not explicitly said he opposes it.

“Clearly this proposed merger has encountered a great deal more resistance than Comcast ever expected,” said Todd O’Boyle, a program director at Common Cause. “All signs point to growing momentum against the merger.”

On Tuesday, a Comcast spokeswoman said in a statement that the coalitions are rehashing old, hackneyed arguments.

“There's no real news here — just another group of existing opponents making the same arguments they have already made at the FCC for months, many of which weren’t found to be credible in our past transaction reviews, and all of which we’ve refuted directly with evidence in the FCC record," she said in an email. "The real facts remain the same: consumers don’t lose choice in the broadband or video markets.  Consumers will see real benefits in faster broadband speeds and better video products, and a host of other benefits. And there are no transaction-specific harms to this merger.” 

Comcast has been exchanging information with the government and dismissed criticism from opponents as “irrelevant.”

“To be sure, there are extended riffs on a generalized ‘big is bad’ theme, but this is symptomatic of the overheated rhetoric that large transactions always evoke,” Comcast said in one 324-page filing with the FCC.

It has fought back against claims that the transaction is anti-competitive and denied accusations that it choked streaming speeds for companies like Netflix.

Comcast points to letters of support from entities including Hallmark Channel, Starz and TiVo as evidence of industry backing. Americans for Tax Reform has also told the FCC to approve the merger and has mentioned the issue in lobbying disclosure forms.

When Comcast negotiated to buy NBC Universal, “it faced a lot of the same opposition as this deal is facing now,” said a different spokeswoman with the company. “On this transaction, in some ways, the antitrust issues are easier. We don’t compete anywhere. This is a deal like many others that have been done.”

 
-- This post was updated at 1:56 p.m. to include an additional statement from Comcast.