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Cable merger to bring changes

Critics worry it may erode service

Portland e-mail subscribers are likely to be the first to see changes if the merger of Comcast Corp. with AT&T Broadband wins regulatory approval. Longer term, the odds of Blazer fans seeing games on cable next year have improved greatly from the virtually lost 2001-2002 broadcasting season.

AT&T Broadband now commands much of the local cable television market and all of Portland's high-speed broadband Internet audience.

Critics, however, worry that the combination Ñ which will create one of the world's leading media and entertainment companies Ñ will bring higher subscription costs and worse service.

The merger almost certainly will bring administrative changes.

But the deal, which was announced Dec. 19, needs Federal Trade Commission approval, a process that is likely to take 9 to 12 months. That shouldn't be a problem. Cable industry observers say the Bush administration's merger-friendly FTC almost certainly will give its blessings to the marriage.

But, so far, not much beyond an exchange of promises has occurred.

'The top folks in the companies are assigned to transition teams to look at how the two companies will come together, said Eileen Connolly, a New Jersey spokeswoman for AT&T Broadband. 'They're set to begin work really soon.'

The combined company, which would generate an estimated $19 billion in annual revenues, according to early estimates, will be called AT&T Comcast.

Assuming there are no hitches, here is an early line on what Portland cable customers can expect:

Subscribers to Excite@Home who switched to AT&T Broadband Internet when the former folded almost certainly will see their e-mail addresses change, according to Marshall Runkel, an aide to City Commissioner Erik Sten and a telecommunications specialist. That is, AT&T could revamp the broadband Internet service provider.

'I can guarantee that anyone who switched to ATTBI from Excite won't be at that address in a year,' Runkel said. 'They're all going to have to migrate one more time, because I don't think ATTBI will exist after this.'

Even though AT&T Comcast likely would administer the new system, anyone who has switched Internet service providers knows that such changes are replete with headaches: Friends must be notified, new service contracts must be signed, the new service administrators must prove to be capable, and on and on.

The new company's customer service could be, in Runkel's terms, 'really good. Comcast has a really good reputation. They've been very efficient and very focused on cable, whereas other cable companies experimented in high-speed Internet and phone service.'

Blazer-Action Sports conundrum

The deal won't make Action Sports Cable Network, which will carry about a quarter of the remaining Blazer games, magically appear on city TV sets.

Portland-based AT&T Broadband spokesperson Lindy Bartell said nothing had changed since negotiations between the cable system and ASCN ended in an impasse last fall.

Runkel said most have written off the 2001-2002 season in terms of getting Blazer games on AT&T's cable channels.

'I'd be shocked if something on that changed between now and when Comcast takes over,' he said.

That said, Comcast has a reputation for supporting sports broadcasting in local markets, which, Runkel said, hints that the network might be more amenable to broadcasting ASCN programming.

'Comcast coming in here at least creates a chance that something good will happen,' Runkel said.

Broadband customers who also are Comcast investors could benefit from the move. Analysts maintain the cable company's stock will spike once Comcast folds the high-speed Internet services into its products roster. The huge company could realize massive revenues from its 22 to 30 million subscribers, far more than the 12.7 million users subscribing to cable systems operated by AOL Time Warner, its closest competitor. In general, cable analysts believe their industry will see a 13 percent increase in revenues.

On the other hand, Comcast has not welcomed other cable and broadband companies that want to 'overbuild' new telecommunications systems in cities where it has a strong presence. Comcast is said to have prevented RCN, which had sought to build a cable/phone network in Portland, from putting new pipes in several areas, including Comcast's hometown of Philadelphia. 'They could make it very tough for a potential overbuilder to come into Portland,' Runkel noted.

Small ISPs could benefit

Those who prefer using smaller, locally based high-speed Internet service providers will likely get more attention from their ISPs. 'The way we continue to survive is to pay more attention to customers and focus more on the local community we're in, and to offer a different kind of customer service,' said Rich Bader, president and chief executive officer of Easy-Street. 'If you call us, you get someone to talk to right away, with no voice mail or queues.'

Contact Andy Giegerich at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..