Feds clear a dark path for CenturyLink-Level 3 deal in California

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CenturyLink’s purchase of Level 3 Communications is on track to be approved by the California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday. It’s always possible that a decision could be bumped to a later meeting, but there’s no indication at this point that there will be any delays.

A settlement CenturyLink reached with anti-trust lawyers at the federal justice department last week takes the edge off the damage the deal will do to California’s broadband market, although it doesn’t eliminate it. Level 3 is the largest independent source – often the only source – of dark fiber, which competitive broadband providers need to compete with the likes of AT&T and Comcast.

That agreement has CenturyLink giving up dark fiber strands on 30 key routes, including five in California. Unlike the CPUC’s review, the federal investigation into the effects of the merger identified the real danger it poses

Dark fiber is a crucial input for large, sophisticated customers that need to move substantial amounts of data between specific cities. These customers have specialized data transport needs, including capacity, scalability, flexibility, and security, that can be fulfilled only by Intercity Dark Fiber. CenturyLink and Level 3 compete to sell Intercity Dark Fiber to these customers, and this competition has led to lower prices for and increased availability of Intercity Dark Fiber. The consolidation of these two competitors would likely substantially lessen competition for the sale of Intercity Dark Fiber for thirty city pairs in the United States in violation of [anti-trust law].

The justice department is, at least, going after the root of the problem by trying to reduce CenturyLink’s ability to extract monopoly rents from the detail. That’s unlike the largely meaningless but relatively harmless measures under consideration by the California Public Utilities Commission, and the equally meaningless but less benign alternatives pushed by the California Emerging Technology Fund, which just aim to spread the rents around.