And the FCC's endorsement of the idea that the government has a role in encouraging this competition is probably the most important aspect of its decision today.
First, some background: How mergers at the FCC will play out is notoriously hard to predict, but the ultimate result is not. The historical truth is that, in virtually every instance, the commission will approve any major proposed transaction. The only time in recent memory that the commission declined to do so was the proposed merger of the two leading satellite-TV providers (Echostar and DirecTV) -- and that marriage was running into problems with other agencies long before the FCC put the final nail in the coffin.
(Yes, then-Chairman Reed Hundt also famously ended rumors of an AT&T and Southwestern Bell merger in 1997 by preemptively declaring it "unthinkable." But those companies simply had to wait until 2005, when a different FCC chairman let it go through.)
The real action at the FCC involves what "conditions" the agency will put on a merger. These are supposed to be narrowly tailored to address specific harms raised by the merger at issue. But, regardless of who is in charge at the agency, it's all relative.
Often, the conditions applied to a particular merger have more to do with what the chairman and commissioners at the time want to achieve on an industrywide basis. It's just easier to get these things done when you have the extraordinary leverage of controlling the timing of a multibillion-dollar transaction that the parties are desperate to consummate.
Conditions reached as a bitter compromise in one merger often become the floor for the those imposed on the very next merger. Network neutrality began as a set of four unenforceable conditions endorsed by the FCC as part of a grand compromise that involved a split commission (two Republicans, two Democrats) deregulating broadband. In the next major merger (SBC-AT&T and Verizon-MCI), the conditions were made mandatory (as they applied to those parties). And in the next major merger (AT&T-BellSouth), a fifth condition was added. The history here is incredibly complex and certainly there were many factors. But it's basically correct to say that all these steps played an important, incremental role in the 3-2 decision last December to implement industrywide net-neutrality rules. (Full disclosure: Until last summer, I was a staffer at the FCC -- for Commissioner Michael Copps and Chairman Julius Genachowski -- and played a role in many of the foregoing decisions, although not the Comcast-NBCU merger.)
The FCC's list of conditions in this merger are pretty straightforward and expected -- for the most part. Rules about Comcast-NBCU not refusing to sell programming to other cable and satellite programmers. Not refusing to carry other programmers' content. Not getting rid of local news, public interest, and children's programming. And so forth.