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Saturday, Aug 30, 2014

Great, another expansion to worry about


WASHINGTON Through a quirk of malevolent fate, I had four contracts with cable providers at the same time: Time Warner Cable (two), Comcast and Cox Communications.

Clearly, it was a nightmare. The sight of those envelopes containing their incomprehensible, sky-high bills ruined my day. (Even the sympathetic mail carrier forewent his usual cheery greeting.)

President Obama, defending his health insurance initiative, said a few days ago that people who say they can’t afford to pay $300 or so each month for health insurance might want to prioritize their spending by reconsidering their cable and cellphone bills because if they get sick and have no insurance, they will wish they had.

It’s hard to know how to react to that statement. It might be nice to think about not having cable or phone service, especially for a man who probably would love to shut himself off from the world now and then, but it’s not really practical.

With free TV basically a thing of the past (unless you have amazing skills in making converter boxes work — sadly, aluminum foil is no longer an option), cable TV is basically a necessity of modern life. So that is why a case pending before the Obama administration’s Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission is important for each American.

Comcast, the giant cable company that yearns to be even bigger, wants to buy Time Warner Cable, also a huge purveyor of cable and broadband. Justice and the FCC are deciding whether this is in the best interest of the nation to have one company control 30 percent of cable TV and up to 40 percent of Internet access.

The obvious answer is NO. But it’s equally obvious that Washington doesn’t always do the obvious thing. Comcast already owns NBC and Universal Studios and has more than half of the entire nation’s cable subscribers. And who among us hasn’t had a rate increase in recent years?

Traditionally, this country worries when competition declines, and innovation is curtailed. The mere idea of one company owning a major TV network and controlling a huge swath of Internet access and cable content should make everyone shudder. But many are shrugging their shoulders. So what if Comcast buys Time Warner for $45.2 billion?

Comcast is a benemoth with powerful friends in Washington. It spends $18 million a year lobbying and gives an additional $16 million to charities, cozying up to politicians along the way.

If the merger is permitted, Comcast would control what programs a large percentage of the country sees. It could refuse to pay market prices for content and refuse to carry some channels. We’ve already seen cable companies drop popular channels, including local news and weather, because they wanted to pay less.

The state of Florida has announced it is joining with some other states to determine with the antitrust office of the Justice Department if Comcast’s plan to merge with Time Warner is legal, a welcome development.

The world is watching to see how Obama handles Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Just as important for Americans is what he does about Comcast’s desired annexation of Time Warner.

Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune. Readers may send her email at amcfeattersnationalpress.com.

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