Comcast-Netflix: It's Really All About TWC
Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading
So do you really think it's a coincidence that Comcast and Netflix inked their IP interconnection deal just a week or so after Comcast agreed to fork over $45.2 billion for Time Warner Cable?
If so, think again, say two different Wall Street analysts covering the broadband and video markets. In fact, the two senior financial analysts -- Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson LLC and former partner Carlos Kirjner of Bernstein Research -- contend that the Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK)-Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX) pact had almost everything to do with the much larger and far more important Comcast-Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) pact. (See Comcast-Netflix Peering Deal: A Game-Changer? and The Dangerous Reaction to Netflix-Comcast.)
In separate notes to investors this week, Kirjner and Moffett advance similar arguments that Comcast sought to strike the peering pact with Netflix because it wanted to remove the online video giant as a looming obstacle before the regulatory review of its TW Cable purchase by the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) . They note that while Comcast and Netflix may have been negotiating their pact for many months, Comcast reportedly stepped up to seal the deal with sweetened terms for Netflix in the past week.
"Why has this deal happened now?" Kirjner asks rhetorically in his note. "We suspect the fundamental motivation for the deal is an attempt by Comcast to remove the IP interconnection issue from the regulatory review of its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable."
With Comcast poised to have nearly 32 million broadband subscribers if the TWC deal closes, the analysts note, the giant MSO will potentially wield great power over the US broadband market. Netflix, which has been frustrated in its efforts to connect directly to those subscribers, had been expected to raise the IP interconnection issue with federal regulators overseeing the merger review process.
"By reaching an IP-interconnection agreement with Netflix, Comcast reduces the risk that the issue will play a major role in the merger review," Kirjner writes. "We would be surprised if the deal was not conditional on a tacit (if not explicit) agreement by Netflix not to lobby regulators to add IP-interconnection to the merger review and, if the deal is approved, to its conditions."
Indeed, consider what might have happened if Comcast had stuck to its guns in the peering negotiations and insisted that Netflix shell out great sums for the direct connection to the MSO's broadband subscribers. Netflix would likely have continued to balk at an agreement, potentially making it look as if Comcast were trying to squeeze out one of its main rivals in the video subscription business.
"Throwing its weight around and bullying Netflix, a company that many (regulators included) mistakenly view as Comcast's direct competitor, would open Comcast to a charge of anti-competitive behavior," Moffett writes. "That would almost certainly have raised eyebrows at the DoJ."
That doesn't mean that the IP interconnection issue will go away for good as a leverage point between the two companies, Kirjner notes. Assuming that Comcast gets the TWC deal through the DoJ and FCC without too many conditions, he says, it will be able to flex its broadband muscles more powerfully again at some point. Likewise, it could be added, Netflix will be free to lobby for new restrictions on Comcast's market power.
For now, though, it certainly seems to be in both companies' interests to shake hands and act like friends. Comcast gets to silence Netflix as a potentially pesky opponent of its TWC purchase, while Netflix gets its direct connection to Comcast's broadband base at a reportedly nominal price of several million dollars a year.
So both companies go home happy in the end. Win-win, anybody?
— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading