AT&T is seeking approval to buy DirecTV for $48.5 billion, and Sprint has made no secret of the fact that it would like to acquire T-Mobile.
Those mergers give the FCC a new tool to address the contentious issue of net neutrality.
The FCC enacted net-neutrality rules in 2010, but a federal Appeals Court struck down those rules earlier this year. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is now trying to rewrite the regulations in a way that can survive future court challenges.
But many liberal lawmakers, tech companies, and activists are outraged that Wheeler's proposal could allow Internet service providers to charge websites for faster service in some cases. They warn that "fast lanes" would tilt the Internet in favor of the richest corporations, leaving everyone else lagging behind. They argue that Internet providers should be required to treat all traffic equally.
Activists camped outside the FCC over the issue, and guards had to drag out several protesters who stood up and began shouting at the commissioners at the FCC's most recent public meeting.
The FCC can use merger conditions to soften some of that blowback. Even though a court said the FCC lacked the legal authority for the stronger net-neutrality rules, the agency could still force merging companies to abide by the now-defunct regulations.
Comcast is already bound by the old rules until 2018 as a condition of its 2011 purchase of NBC-Universal. The cable giant has promised to extend that protection to Time Warner Cable customers if the merger is approved. AT&T has also offered to abide by the old regulations for three years if regulators let it buy DirecTV.
Those offers are really just opening bids in negotiations with regulators, and the FCC could likely force the companies to accept even longer net-neutrality commitments.
Walter Piecyk, an industry analyst with the firm BTIG, said the flurry of transactions gives the FCC a "unique" opportunity to address the public pressure over net neutrality.
"There's a solution sitting right in front of it," he said.
The agency could even impose regulations that go well beyond its 2010 net-neutrality order. The old rules applied minimal requirements for Internet service on mobile devices. The FCC could force AT&T to accept new net-neutrality requirements for cell-phone service as a condition of its DirecTV deal, and Sprint would likely accept tougher rules if it were allowed to buy T-Mobile.
The mergers also give the FCC a chance to experiment with new regulations of network connection deals — a separate but related topic to net neutrality. The issue has prompted growing concern in recent months after Netflix had to pay Comcast and Verizon to connect directly to their networks.
The net-neutrality regulations govern only how Internet providers handle traffic flowing over the last mile of cable into consumers' homes — not how networks connect to each other. But by refusing to allow Netflix to connect directly to their networks, the broadband companies can effectively throttle Netflix's service, resulting in more buffering and lower-quality videos.