Arik Hesseldahl

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U.S. Approves Comcast’s Acquisition of NBC U, but With Conditions

The Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice have finally confirmed what most have expected for some time–that they are approving the the proposed acquisition by the cable TV giant Comcast of NBC Universal.

In a 4-1 vote–Commissioner Michael Copps dissented–the FCC is allowing the deal to go through, but with some conditions, most of them relating to the online video business. One key requirement that’s not happening: Comcast isn’t being required to divest itself of its equity in the Web video site Hulu, which a few lawmakers had called for. It will however be required to give up its role in managing Hulu. NBC U jointly owns it with the Walt Disney Co. and News Corp. (which also owns this Web site).

In a statement, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the conditions imposed “include carefully considered steps to ensure that competition drives innovation in the emerging online video marketplace.”

Among those conditions, the FCC will also require Comcast to offer Web versions of its TV shows to what it calls “bona fide online distributors” under the same terms it offers them to cable and satellite providers. This would indicate that shows appearing on Hulu will probably end up on Apple TV or YouTube or elsewhere, meaning, as MediaMemo’s Peter Kafka suggested last month that Hulu’s exclusive rights to NBC content are over.

Comcast will also be required to offer broadband to some 2.5 million low-income households for less than $10 a month, and will be required to extend its network to reach 400,000 homes, build out service in six rural communities and provide free video and high-speed Internet access to 600 schools and libraries in underserved areas. This will allow Genachowski to claim some kind of victory on one of the Obama administration’s signature technology policy issues, which is spreading the availability of broadband.

In a dissenting statement, Copps called the merger “a transaction like no other that has come before this commission–ever,” and said “It confers too much power in one company’s hands.”

Harold Feld, legal director at Public Knowledge, a Washington, D.C.-based public interested group, said the organization was largely satisfied with the conditions except for one. It would have liked to see Comcast required to sell broadband service on a wholesale basis. “As longtime supporters of wholesale access, we believe such a condition would go a long way to help consumers by increasing broadband competition,” he said.