AT&T's proposed acquisition of Time Warner would leave the company poised to raise prices, scale back access to independent programs and harm content distributors. That's according to Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota) and 12 others, who wrote to the companies today to express concerns about the planned $85 billion merger.
"AT&T is already the world's largest pay TV provider and the largest telecommunications company," the lawmakers say in a letter to AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson and Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes. "Combining it with one of the world's largest producers of content gives AT&T-Time Warner both the incentive and ability to use its platform to harm competitors, and as a result, consumers."
Franken and the others, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), ask the companies to state how the proposed merger will benefit the public. "The statement should demonstrate how the deal would further the broader policy goals of the Communications Act, including deploying services, particularly to rural and underserved areas, ensuring non-discriminatory access to communications networks, improving network reliability, promoting diversity of ideas and voices in the marketplace, and encouraging the free flow of information via telecommunications services," the letter says.
The lawmakers add that they believe consolidation in telecom and media "should only be permitted if it results in better and more affordable services for consumers."
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), who signed the letter, previously expressed fears that the merger could prompt AT&T to expand its use of data caps. "I am deeply concerned that if AT&T acquires Time Warner's content, the new mega-company will have incentives to prioritize its own content over content created by small business, independent artists or by its rivals," Wyden said in a letter sent to the FCC last year.
AT&T already exempts material streamed through the DirecTV app from consumers' data caps. The FCC recently said that practice violates the net neutrality rules, but the new FCC Chair has indicated that he wants to repeal those rules.
The lawmakers' letter to the companies comes several weeks after AT&T said it may not need the Federal Communications Commission's approval for the deal -- presumably because Time Warner plans to shed its FCC licenses. If so, the deal would still need approval by the Justice Department, but that agency will only focus on whether the deal raises any antitrust issues. The FCC, by contrast, evaluates whether mergers benefit the public.
The lawmakers have asked AT&T and Time Warner to respond by February 17.