Regulators should scrutinize how Charter's proposed $67 billion merger with Time Warner and Bright House Networks will affect the availability of rural broadband, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) said on Thursday.
"In today's world, affordable access to broadband Internet is vital to Americans' ability to communicate and successfully engage in our global economy," Franken writes in a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
"In my home state of Minnesota, a large number of rural households don't have access to Internet speeds of 25mpbs or higher," Franken says.
He adds that even though Charter provides broadband to portions of the state, the service "is largely focused in the more concentrated population centers and does not extend to the harder-to-reach homes."
Charter has publicly promised to build out service to rural areas, but Franken expresses concern that the company's statements are vague. He also questions whether Charter will be able to afford to create new rural broadband networks after it "undertakes the considerable debt that will be necessary" to purchase Time Warner and Bright House.
"I remained concerned about the impact of further consolidation in an industry that is already highly concentrated," Franken writes. "A deal of this size could have a lasting effect on the quality and affordability of broadband and cable services."
Overall, the proposed acquisition doesn't appear to have drawn the same degree of concern as Comcast's failed bid to acquire Time Warner. One explanation could be that Charter preempted some criticism by publicly promising to follow the FCC's net neutrality rules -- including the ban on charging content companies higher fees for faster delivery -- for at least three years, even if a court vacates the regulations.
Charter also promised to refrain from imposing data caps, or charging customers based on the amount of data they consume, for at least three years. In addition, Charter said it won't charge content companies like Netflix extra fees to interconnect directly with Charter's servers.
That latter promise spurred Netflix -- which had opposed Comcast's application to acquire Time Warner -- to publicly support Charter's merger bid.
Franken told regulators that he's disappointed that Charter only promised to follow open Internet principles for three years.