Alternate ending emerges for California cable game

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Charter Communications, the fourth largest cable TV company in the U.S., has an agreement to buy Bright House Networks, the sixth largest. The deal sets up a couple of possible futures for broadband in California.

Bright House and Charter are already wrapped up in the proposed Comcast-Time Warner merger. Via a series of market swaps, Comcast would get all of Charter’s systems in the state, except for the one at Lake Tahoe. Bright House has a scattering of systems in Kern County. Because of Bright House’s corporate ties to Time Warner, the thinking has been that Comcast would absorb those systems too, if the merger is approved.

That assumption hasn’t changed. Even though Charter included the Kern systems in its map of what it will keep in a post-mega merger/swap world, the logic of selling or trading them to Comcast is inexorable. It’s a fair bet that any upgrade or other requirements the California Public Utilities Commission imposes on Comcast would apply to the Bright House systems too.

But approval – by the CPUC or federal agencies – isn’t certain. The way the Bright House buy out is structured, it’ll be cancelled if the bigger deal doesn’t go through. But that doesn’t mean it’ll go away completely. Plan B has Charter turning around and buying Time Warner, as it tried to do before Comcast stepped in. Or so the speculation goes. Rolling Bright House into that scenario as well isn’t much of a leap.

Regardless of how the pieces eventually fit together, regulators, like the CPUC, will have to bless the result. So upgrade requirements, particularly for the Charter systems that lack broadband capability, would still be on the table. A future where two merely large companies split the state might not be ideal, but it’s better than handing a surly giant near-monopoly rights to California.