February 27

Rep. Pingree leads national drive to stop Comcast/Time Warner merger

She says the merger of Comcast and Time Warner makes her worry that consumers will pay higher prices and get fewer choices.

By Ray Routhier rrouthier@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine is leading a national petition drive urging the U.S. Attorney General’s Office to block the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner, the nation’s two largest cable TV and Internet providers.

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AP File Photos

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On Monday, Pingree posted a message on the website of the social action group CREDO asking people to sign her petition to Attorney General Eric Holder. As of Wednesday evening, more than 93,500 signatures had been recorded.

On Wednesday, Pingree sent emails from her campaign organization asking people to sign the petition to Holder on her campaign website.

The petition drive appears unique. Web searches don’t turn up similar efforts led by elected officials, and Pingree’s office could not find similar efforts, said Willy Ritch, a spokesman for Pingree.

The proposed merger has caused a storm of protest from consumer and social action groups. Several petition drives started by advocacy groups, including Common Cause and Free Press, are being run online, and a petition protesting the merger is on the petitions page of the White House website, whitehouse.gov. That petition had more than 90,000 signatures Wednesday.

Pingree, who was president of Washington-based Common Cause before she was elected to Congress in 2008, said Wednesday that she has long been interested in issues involving media consolidation and the potential harm to consumers.

She said the merger of Comcast and Time Warner, announced in mid-February, makes her worry that consumers will pay higher prices and get fewer choices.

“I’m worried about what a merger would do to consumers and I believe it would lead to less competition and higher prices,” Pingree said in a written statement. “One of my biggest concerns is how a combined Comcast/Time Warner would have control over Internet access for tens of millions of people, and if they chose to they could use that power to go after competitors like Netflix or Hulu. We need more competition in this industry, not less.”

Time Warner Cable is Maine’s largest cable TV and Internet provider, with more than 300,000 customers in the state.

The Attorney General’s Office would not comment Wednesday on the proposed merger, or on whether the office is receiving petitions.

The merger needs approval from the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice, which enforces federal antitrust regulations and is headed by the attorney general.

Representatives for Comcast could not be reached for comment on Pingree’s petition drive.

Joli Plucknette-Farmen, a spokeswoman for Time Warner, said Wednesday that the proposed merger “will not harm competition or reduce consumers’ choice in any way” because Time Warner and Comcast don’t compete for customers, and instead serve different geographic areas.

But analysts have said the merger would force others in the cable and telecommunications industry to consolidate, as companies face pressure to compete for customers and programming strength.

The merger could have some long-term effects for companies that own Maine’s TV stations and collect fees from cable companies for the right to retransmit their programming. Combined, Time Warner and Comcast would reach more homes and therefore have more negotiating muscle. In the past few years, disputes over retransmission fees have caused some stations to be taken out of cable lineups temporarily, leaving viewers without those channels.

While no date for a decision on the merger has been set by the FCC or the Attorney General’s Office, the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to examine the merger’s potential impact on consumers March 26.

The proposed $45.2 billion merger would combine the nation’s two largest cable operators. Comcast has 22 million pay TV customers, and Time Warner Cable would contribute 11.2 million customers. Comcast has said the combined company would divest about 3 million customers, reducing its customer base to about 30 million – a level that regulators have been sensitive to in the past.

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