By David Lieberman, USA TODAY

A familiar question has taken on new urgency among media policymakers in Washington, but this time with a twist.

After spending decades debating whether cable companies should be treated as local monopolies that determine what you see on TV and how much you pay for it, lawmakers and regulators are beginning to wonder: Do cable companies now have a similar power to determine who gets high-speed Internet and at what speed and price?

Several industry critics say they do: With 55% of the USA's 76 million high-speed Internet customers, in addition to 63% of the 98 million pay-TV subscribers, cable companies' "market power is increasing, not decreasing - and they flex it aggressively," says Consumer Federation of America Research Director Mark Cooper.

The Federal Communications Commission seems to share that concern. On Tuesday, the agency said that it will continue its effort to promote "a free and open Internet" after the U.S. Court of Appeals sided with Comcast in a controversial case that challenged the FCC's authority to regulate high-speed Internet, known as broadband.

The court said that the FCC's power to set rules for cable TV and telephone services doesn't give it the right to also regulate broadband.

If cable's critics are right - cable companies say they aren't - then the industry's power in broadband and TV could have far-reaching implications for consumers at a time the federal government says that high-speed Internet is critical to the country's economic development.

Some examples:

  • Comcast, Time Warner Cable and others raised high-speed Internet prices by as much as 7.3% in some markets in 2010, possibly to cover expected increases in their television programming costs, Bernstein Research analyst Craig Moffett said earlier this year.

Cable, satellite and telephone company TV providers say they're under pressure because local broadcast stations, suffering from soft ad sales, want cash from any operator that carries their programming - which includes must-see shows from ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC.

But while DirecTV and Dish Network sell comparable packages of TV channels nationwide, they aren't important challengers in the high-speed Internet business.

As a result, cable companies may "feel that they have more pricing power in broadband than in video," Moffett says, and price increases for Internet services would be "more palatable (to consumers) than a larger percentage hike for video."

  • Cable companies slowed the adoption and use of broadband by making it difficult for consumer electronics companies, including TiVo, Apple and Roku, to sell devices that blend television programming with Internet data, the FCC said last month.

That's prevented many people from being able to do things such as engage in on-screen chats during sports events and other shows, or use mobile devices including smartphones to watch programs they receive at home.

Growing issue

These and other concerns about cable's clout likely will come up more frequently and prominently this year. Federal officials face a growing number of decisions that could affect consumer prices as well as people's ability to access civic life, education and health care.

For example, the government will have to decide whether Comcast, the biggest cable company, should be allowed to buy a controlling stake in NBC Universal, a giant in broadcast TV, cable programming, Hollywood, Internet content and theme parks.

Critics of the deal say the combination would give Comcast too much power to determine which services would thrive or die on the Internet as it becomes the USA's main conduit for media and communications.

(That deal even rattles some cable companies. Speaking for his company, Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt says elements of the plan "do cause some concern for us, and we're looking at that" - although he adds that it would be "premature" to be more specific. The FCC set a May 3 deadline for the public to formally submit views about Comcast's proposal.)

The FCC's National Broadband Plan - a new set of proposals designed to make high-speed Internet service as ubiquitous as running water - also includes recommendations to help wireless service providers, municipal governments and others compete with cable.

"We're at a crossroads" in the nation's effort to make the Internet the focal point of communications, says Colin Crowell, a senior counsel to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. "Congress, the (Obama) administration and the FCC have recognized the importance of broadband to ongoing investment and innovation."

The FCC also will look at cable's muscle in broadband as regulators consider ways to ensure that Internet providers treat all websites equally. Advocates of this policy, popularly known as "net neutrality" (for network neutrality) fear that Internet providers might cut business deals to transmit some sites or services faster than others.

And nobody's forgotten cable's influence in television, the nation's most popular medium.

As news and entertainment slosh between PCs, mobile devices and television sets, it's hard to craft broadband policies that don't also deal with video programming.

"It's the killer app," Crowell says.

Cable still has a lot of flexibility over consumer prices and program choice, even though companies have been losing TV customers. They likely will have 60.1 million subscribers, or 59% of the pay-TV market, in 2012, down from 63.3 million and 70.5% of the market in 2005, according to Bernstein Research.

Some viewers are going to satellite companies DirecTV and Dish Network as they've added local stations and high-definition channels. Others switched to cable-like services introduced by phone companies.

Verizon says 2,500 communities in parts of 16 states can get its FiOS service, which uses fiber-optic lines to deliver state-of-the-art TV, broadband and phone connections.

AT&T says that its U-verse, which uses a less expensive technology than Verizon's to offer zippy communications, reaches 120 markets in 22 states.

That's one reason Britt says "broadband is very competitive."

With phone companies - which are far bigger than cable - offering DSL or faster Internet services in most cities, "What I worry about every day is what my competitors are doing and how to beat them," Britt says.

Unwanted attention

Cable companies are wary about the increasing attention they're getting in Washington, including from elements of the FCC's broadband plan such as the initiative to help consumer electronics companies sell devices that blend TV programming and Internet services.

The agency has "some pretty ambitious plans, and some of them do concern us," says Jerry Kent, CEO of Suddenlink, the No. 8 cable company.

They say that it would be unfair to penalize them for taking the enormous risk to make broadband so popular. Cable companies invested more than $161 billion from 1996 through 2009, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association reports, mostly to upgrade cable systems so they can deliver sophisticated digital services including Internet, video on demand, and phone.

"If we were still a monopoly, we wouldn't be innovating, we wouldn't be investing in our infrastructure and striving to be the best customer service provider out there," Kent says.

Executives say government actions to control how cable handles broadband, or to help competitors, would scare investors from providing the cash needed for additional investments and upgrades.

"This infrastructure is very expensive to build and maintain, and provides a whole lot of jobs, too, by the way," Britt says. "It has to get paid for, and the people who invest the capital have to get a return. That's how our system works."

Companies say that wireless broadband providers - led by the phone companies - could make cable's wired service seem passé. Smartphones and devices such as Amazon's Kindle and Apple's new iPad are whetting consumers' appetites to access the Web just about anywhere, without the hassle of a wire line or finding a Wi-Fi network.

"They're going to provide faster speeds and more capacity," Kent says. "We're working to stay ahead of the competition."

But others say cable companies are stronger than they want to admit. "The cable monopoly is far from dead," says Moffett. The industry is "looking more dominant than ever" with a broadband infrastructure that no rival can match in most of the country, he says.

Cable snagged about 70% of all new broadband customers in the second half of 2009.

And the industry is poised to keep growing. Companies are busily deploying a new technology, called DOCSIS 3.0, that within three years will boost Internet download speeds on most of their networks to at least 50 megabits per second - about 10 times faster than what most cable systems now provide.

On call

What about the phone companies?

Wireless providers say that they need the government to find a lot more airwave spectrum, possibly taking some from TV broadcasters, just to keep up with the growing demand for smartphones and new devices.

"Spectrum takes so long to (free up), sometimes five to eight years," says AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets CEO Ralph de la Vega. "We need to start now so when the (additional consumer) needs come, they can be met."

Meanwhile, the vast majority of phone companies' broadband customers - 36.6% of all high-speed Internet subscribers - get DSL, which typically offers about 2 mbps.

Only about 4.6% of all high- speed Internet customers subscribed to FiOS at the end of 2009, Moffett estimates, while 2.8% bought U-verse.

After spending $23 billion on FiOS, Verizon's interest in building a wired service to compete with cable seems to be waning. The company says that it won't seek additional TV franchises for FiOS, and abandoned efforts to enter Boston, Baltimore and Alexandria, Va.

The company says it will continue to expand in markets it has already entered, including New York City.

AT&T says it's still very much in the game but hopes to win customers by offering novel services, not broadband horsepower.

The competition "is not just about speed anymore," says Jeffrey Weber, AT&T's vice president of video products.

"It's about integration (with TV and wireless services) and how well they work together. At some point, you have way more speed than you can possibly utilize. And we're mostly past that point."

Maybe so. But, consumer advocate Cooper says, if phone and cable companies are the only broadband providers in a market, then they may decide to peacefully coexist - for example, by keeping consumer prices high.

Washington's new attempts to deal with cable's growing power strike him as just "nibbling at the edges" of the problem.

"Cable is the dominant guy in a highly, highly concentrated market," Cooper says. "You're not dramatically changing that equation."