Comcast deserves FCC scrutiny, too

The Federal Communications Commission has a lot on its plate at the moment: Net neutrality, the development of a national broadband plan, Google Voice, E-Rate, Frontier's acquisition of Verizon properties--the list goes on.

Into this very crowded room, Comcast may soon walk arm-in-arm with NBC Universal. Nothing has happened yet, but speculation persists that the largest cable TV firm in the U.S. may soon move to acquire a controlling stake in the entertainment giant, a company which increasingly has become known for its cable channel properties rather than its long-standing national TV network. NBC Universal also has TV station properties and the Universal Studios theme parks.

If the deal happens, I'm wondering if the FCC is ready to be as tough on Comcast in the TV content world as it seems ready to be on telcos in the Internet world. The FCC seems more than ready to impose new Net neutrality rules that would affect telcos and many other broadband service providers to keep big companies from controlling the Internet. Will they be just as ready to prevent big-company Comcast from being miserly with a vast amount of cable TV programming that other video providers, such as telcos, would need fair access to?

I mention this concern only because the FCC made concessions to the cable TV industry earlier this year in the form of loosening restrictions on how much of the nation the big cable firms can serve (Update: A reader reminded me that the FCC was forced into this action by a court ruling, so it was not by the FCC's whim, but I stick with my ultimate argument--keep reading). Meanwhile, regulators may be tempted to continue seeing big telcos as the dominant players in the Internet market and the multi-service telecom industry. But, the game is changing rapidly, and "alternative" service providers like Comcast and Google are becoming the new power players, just as capable of unfairly dominating as AT&T is.

As it has done with telco mergers in the past, the FCC should be ready to review carefully a Comcast-NBC Universal deal, and be just as ready to impose any necessary deal conditions and divestitures. It's still a strange new world for telcos as they step further into the video market. They have had enough success to show consumers and competitors that they are capable of sticking around, but their growth can still be stifled if the biggest cable TV company is allowed to have too much control, without conditions, over the valuable content realm.