So no matter how big Comcast gets, its power to manipulate Internet traffic will be strictly limited by the regulations. Paul de Sa, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co, thinks the deal will probably win approval.
"On the margin, it might be slightly harder to argue the antitrust case as the net neutrality rules notionally prevent many of the competitive harms that post-merger Comcast is alleged to be able to cause," he explained.
On a purely political level, the FCC's hard line on net neutrality could give it cover to go easier on the Comcast deal. Enacting weak net neutrality rules would have prompted a massive public backlash and pressured the FCC to crack down on the cable companies. The tough rules likely give the FCC some political breathing room to go either way on the merger. Even if he backs the deal, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler will likely be remembered more for his strong stand on an open Internet.
WHY NET NEUTRALITY IS BAD FOR THE DEAL
It might be wishful thinking on Comcast's part to believe that the same agency that just enacted sweeping Internet regulations will approve a major consolidation of the industry. Wheeler, in fact, has made "competition, competition, competition" a sort of mantra. And competition in the broadband industry is sorely lacking, he has said.
The lack of broadband competition was an important rationale behind the FCC's decision to reclassify broadband as a "telecommunications service" in order to enact strong net neutrality regulations. "The deal is a bit harder to envision now in light of reclassification," said Craig Moffett, an analyst for MoffettNathanson.
The opponents of the Comcast merger aren't letting up in the wake of tough new regulations. "The net neutrality rules do not come close to solving the many harms of Comcast-Time Warner, which no conditions can alleviate," Jeffrey Blum, the deputy general of Dish Network, said on a recent call with reporters.
(RELATED: Can Net Neutrality Survive the Impending Onslaught of Lawsuits?)
The biggest fear, Blum said, is that Comcast still could strangle competition from new online video services by demanding exclusive online rights from media companies like Viacom or Disney. Because the combined company would be so massive, media companies would feel they had to comply with its demands for their cable channels to reach Comcast-TWC's 30 million homes, Blum warned.
John Bergmayer, a senior staff attorney for the consumer group Public Knowledge, agreed that Comcast-TWC would have the market power to determine the future of online TV, even with net neutrality restrictions. "Sure they'll welcome online video—as long as its online video that they control," Bergmayer said on the call with reporters.
Public Knowledge and Dish are both members of Stop Mega Comcast, the not-so subtly named coalition lobbying against the deal. Dish is planning to launch its own online TV service.