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Policy Watch: Another Grilling for Comcast-NBCU

The proposed merger of Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) and NBC Universal got run over the coals again Thursday during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Department of Justice officials pledging a rigorous review of deal. (See Comcast to Take Control of NBC Universal.)

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski and Christine Varney, head of the DoJ's antitrust division, didn't hint at any possible conditions that might be imposed on the merger, but Genachowski noted that the Commission began its review on March 5 and that it will soon seek comments on the proposed deal.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said she's against the merger, calling out NBC's decision to allow access to some Web-based programming from the Winter Olympics to consumers who subscribe to one of the network's subscription TV partners, while others were left wanting. "At this point, I can't support the merger," she said. "Seattle is very concerned about what happened during the Olympics." (See NBC Walls Off Olympics.)

Comcast chief Brian Roberts was there to defend the deal and once again tried to simmer concerns that that the purchase might "incentivize us or cause us to raise rates." He also said Comcast has no intention to change NBC's relationship with online video hub Hulu LLC .

In other testimony, WideOpenWest Holdings LLC (WOW) president Coleen Abdoulah reissued a warning that the market power of a Comcast-NBCU union would cause rates to rise for both consumers and smaller cable operators. (See Comcast CEO: We Won’t Block Rivals.)

"Post-merger, we would be negotiating with one consolidated entity with much greater leverage to extract higher fees from operators and consumers," said Abdoulah, who is also a board member of the American Cable Association (ACA) , an organization that represents about 900 Tier 2 and Tier 3 cable operators. "We are going to pay substantially more for the same programming we distribute today if this merger is approved without conditions, and we will have little choice but to pass this on to consumers," she said.

Here's a quick roundup of other policy news making the rounds:

  • Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC), Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC), Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ), Dish Network LLC (Nasdaq: DISH), the ACA, and others banded together in a petition urging the FCC to help iron out a new resolution system for retransmission negotiations. Among the asks, the coalition is urging the FCC to prevent broadcasters from yanking their signals when retransmission consent negotiations get heated.

    The petition comes ahead of more expected retrans negotiations and days after the much publicized retransmission consent battle between Cablevision and Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS) 's WABC-TV station in New York.

  • The FCC is scheduled to publicly present its National Broadband Plan during an open meeting set to start at 10:30 a.m. ET on Tuesday, March 16. As part of that, the Commission will also consider a "Broadband Mission Statement containing goals for US broadband policy." (See FCC Boots Up National Broadband Plan and FCC Delays National Broadband Plan.)

    Chairman Genachowski has already alluded to some of those goals, including "100 Squared," an initiative that calls for the delivery of 100-Mbit/s services to 100 million homes by 2020. (See FCC Chair Sets 2020 Broadband Vision .)

    — Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

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