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Comcast deserves a fair shake

No one, and no company, is immune from criticism in a free country.

Excavation site of the new Comcast Innovation and Technology Center.
Excavation site of the new Comcast Innovation and Technology Center.Read moreEd Hille / Staff Photographer

NO ONE, and no company, is immune from criticism in a free country. And large businesses that affect our economy and our lives in many ways are certainly fair game. But to be meaningful, criticism must be based on facts and must consider the good along with the bad.

In my view, too much of the criticism of Comcast Corp. - one of our state's most prominent corporate citizens - has failed to meet this basic test. That hurts our community, cheapens what should be an important debate and puts our long-term economic health at risk.

Consider the debate over Comcast's proposal to acquire Time Warner Cable. Critics complain this will somehow allow Comcast to be a "gatekeeper" for the entire Internet, control what we watch on television and undermine the entire online economy. A columnist in this newspaper, for instance, recently argued that the deal would have "problematic effects" in our community without even bothering to specify what those problems would be.

But none of these broadsides hold up under close examination. And while it's easy to shoot spitballs form the grandstands, the facts show that the combination will mean faster and better Internet networks for more consumers, more choice in video and a boost for our local economy.

But since I am complaining about inchoate assertions without factual backup, let's get specific. For starters, there is virtually no chance Comcast can be a dangerous "gatekeeper" of the Internet. Comcast is actually the only Internet service provider bound by the Federal Communications Commission's Open Internet rules since they were struck down by the courts in January - Comcast remains bound to the rules due to a separate promise to the FCC, and has pledged to extend that protection to the customers of Time Warner Cable.

Beyond net neutrality, independent programmers have attested - repeatedly - that Comcast is their best friend in the business, backing new independent networks, particularly those owned by minorities or women, making its NBCUniversal content widely available to all online video providers, and using six out of every seven channels in its cable lineup for unaffiliated programming. And in a world where programmers like HBO and Showtime are rapidly "cutting the cord" and allowing noncable customers to buy direct online, the very idea of Comcast - or any video distributor - as a "gatekeeper" simply makes no sense.

Critics also attack the company's "Internet Essentials" program, arguing this broadband adoption hasn't worked fast enough. Attacking a pro-community civic program like this because it doesn't do enough is bizarre - why not attack the Red Cross because hurricanes still exist? Internet Essentials has helped nearly a million and a half Americans get online, many for the first time. It has been lauded by scores of community organizations including the NAACP, which calls it the largest experiment ever to close the digital divide. And Comcast now proposes to expand it to communities formerly served by Time Warner Cable. By any objective standard, that's a good thing.

Finally, critics seem blind to the many and obvious benefits the combination of Comcast and Time Warner Cable will bring. It's one thing to argue that these benefits don't outweigh the risks of the deal; I disagree, but I understand the argument. But it's dishonest to simply pretend the upside doesn't count.

Comcast has the fastest broadband network in the country, offering up to 505 megabits per second to its residential customers and has increased its speeds 13 times in the past 12 years on a network that is fully digital. Time Warner Cable, by contrast, is far more laggard with maximum speeds in most areas not exceeding 50 megabits per second. Its digital transition is less than 20 percent complete.

Comcast has pledged to invest hundreds of millions of dollars a year bringing Time Warner Cable systems up to its level. Its X1 operating system gives consumers the biggest library and the easiest and "smartest" navigation technologies that have been widely lauded by techies everywhere. Now, Comcast is constructing a new building here in Philadelphia devoted largely to development of new consumer-friendly software and other technologies.

And critics ignore an even more basic truth. Comcast, like all broadband providers, is a jobs engine that drives economic growth in our community and across the entire economy. These companies invest an average of $70 billion a year in our economy, and research by the Communications Workers and the NAACP shows they provided 84 percent of the investment in the Internet ecosystem and employed 869,000 people between 2011 and 2013. The "app economy" made possible by broadband produces an additional 750,000 jobs a year. This is a critical sector of our economy; we should push it forward, not tear it down.

No company is above criticism and no large transaction should be accepted without scrutiny. But that scrutiny must be fact-based and serious, and too much criticism of Comcast and Time Warner Cable fails this most basic test.

Comcast - and our community - deserves better.