Comcast lobbyist Cohen meets his match in FCC's Wheeler

Wed Mar 12, 2014 5:21pm EDT
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By Alina Selyukh and Liana B. Baker

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Comcast Corp's top lobbyist David Cohen is known to be a savvy political operator, having pushed through the No. 1 U.S. cable operator's landmark acquisition of media giant NBC Universal in 2011.

But when it comes to getting approval for Comcast to buy its biggest rival, Time Warner Cable Inc, Cohen must win over someone just as well versed in the ways of lobbyists and the cable industry: Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler.

Wheeler headed the cable trade group from 1979 to 1984 and ran the wireless industry association from 1992 to 2004. Since taking over the FCC last November, however, he has not shied away from stances that have roiled past allies.

One of his most attention-grabbing moves was in February, when Wheeler publicly expressed skepticism about a potential merger between wireless carriers Sprint Corp and T-Mobile U.S. Inc.

"You can't kid a kidder. Having been a lobbyist, he knows all their tricks," Blair Levin, a fellow at the Washington-based nonprofit Aspen Institute, said of Wheeler.

Comcast will formally request an FCC review of the $45.2 billion Time Warner Cable deal later in March. The combined company will cover just under 30 percent of the U.S. pay television video market and about 33 percent of the high-speed Internet market, according to MoffettNathanson Research.

Wheeler and other FCC officials have declined to comment on the proposed merger before seeing the details. Even privately, Wheeler has given few hints of his views, leaving all options on the table, FCC sources say.

"All we can ask for is a full, fair, and open hearing - and I think Chairman Wheeler's message is that is what we will get," Cohen told Reuters in February.   Continued...

U.S. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler testifies before the House Communications and Technology panel on Capitol Hill in Washington December 12, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron