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Franken takes shots at Comcast/Time Warner merger in Senate hearing

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Minnesota Sen. Al Franken grilled top executives of Comcast and Time Warner Cable in a U.S. Senate committee hearing Wednesday over the proposed merger of the two companies, and he made it clear he opposes the $45 billion deal.

Franken, a Democrat, said he's concerned that the merger between the country's No. 1 and No. 2 cable television providers would be a bad deal for consumers, according to Business Week.

"I believe this deal will result in fewer choices, higher prices, and even worse service for my constituents," said Franken, who was the only member of the Senate Judiciary Committee to state outright that he opposes the merger.

"I will make my one firm commitment that there is absolutely nothing in this transaction that will result in an increase in prices for Comcast customers. Nothing," said Comcast vice president David Cohen, according to CNET. But he also said he can't guarantee that rates will fall.

Franken accused Comcast of making an about-face with its argument that Time Warner Cable is not direct competitor, when just a few years ago it argued just the opposite when it wanted to purchase NBCUniversal, according to CNET.

"Comcast can't have it both ways. It can't say that the existence of competition among distributors, including Time Warner Cable, was a reason to approve the NBC deal in 2010, and then turn around a few years a later and say the absence of competition with Time Warner Cable is a reason to approve this deal," he said during the hearing.

Cohen restated his argument that the two companies are not direct competitors in any market in the country.

Minnesota's other U.S. senator, Amy Klobuchar, who also sits on the committee, said a combined Comcast and Time Warner Cable would simply be too powerful.

Klobuchar said several independent television programmers have told her they fear an even larger Comcast would have too much control over the entertainment industry, the Washington Post reports.

“What will happen to the next Netflix that today is just a dream in a garage?” Klobuchar said.

If the merger goes through, the company would control some 33 million video customers and 40 percent of US broadband access, the New York Post reports.

“They will have enormous power over how the Internet develops,” Gene Kimmelman, a former top anti-trust official at the Department of Justice, now CEO of Public Knowledge, a free Internet group, testified at the hearing.

“If they have almost half of the customers, manufacturers will make to their specifications,” he added, according to the Post. “If they want it to be through a bundled high-price set of services, I’m sure it will be.”

Although the senators raised many questions about the proposed merger, they don't have any say over whether it will go through. The Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission will make the final decisions. But Wednesday's hearing gave politicians and advocates on both sides of the merger a chance to make their feelings clear to the regulators who will consider the deal, according to Business Week.

Most experts believe Comcast's deal will eventually be approved, CNET reports. The question is what conditions the FCC or the Justice Department might require of the cable companies before they sign off on the merger.

Comcast is the primary cable TV provider in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. This map on Mashable shows the coverage areas of Comcast and Time Warner Cable throughout the country.

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