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Sen. Franken urges Netflix to weigh in on Comcast-TWC deal

So far, no big companies have opined on what they think of the massive cable merger -- but Sen. Al Franken wants to change that.

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Marguerite Reardon/CNET

As the backdrop is set for Comcast to possibly acquire Time Warner Cable in a $45.2 billion deal, top Internet content providers have kept their opinions to themselves about what they think of the merger.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), an outspoken critic of the possible acquisition, is now openly urging Netflix to weigh in on the deal.

"I am deeply concerned that Comcast's proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable would give Comcast both the power and the incentive to act as a gatekeeper on the Internet, raising costs and limiting choices for consumers," Franken wrote in a letter (PDF) to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings on Wednesday. "As a popular provider of Internet content that competes directly with Comcast, Netflix is uniquely positioned to gauge the risks posed by this deal. I therefore write to invite you or your designee to share Netflix's views."

It's likely Franken singled out Netflix because the video-streaming service butted heads with Comcast recently over having to pay for direct access to its broadband network.

The two companies had for years been locked in a dispute over the cost of delivering Netflix streams to customers over Comcast's broadband network. While Netflix wanted to connect to Comcast's network for free, the cable giant sought compensation for the heavy traffic that Netflix users generate, arguing that it costs the company a lot to deliver Internet video.

In recent months, the dispute appeared to be heating up, with suggestions that Comcast customers were seeing their connections to Netflix degraded. Finally, in February, the two companies made a deal in which Netflix agreed to pay Comcast an undisclosed sum to connect directly to Comcast's network instead of going through intermediaries, as it formerly did.

Netflix isn't the only company to pay Comcast for interconnection. While the terms of Comcast's deals with Netflix and other companies aren't known, it is recognized that other Internet content providers, such as Facebook and Google, also pay Comcast for this interconnection.

In February, Comcast announced its multibillion-dollar deal with Time Warner Cable. If this merger is approved, it could create a cable empire serving 33 million customers across the country.

The deal has sparked strong opposition from some consumer groups and other critics, who say that a combined Comcast and Time Warner Cable would be too powerful. Comcast is the largest cable operator in the nation and Time Warner Cable is the second largest. Comcast maintains the two companies do not overlap directly in any market for broadband or video services, and their combination will strengthen consumers' service options.

So far, no large companies have been willing to stick their necks out and say whether they think the merger is good or bad.

In his letter, Franken asks Hastings to say whether he thinks Comcast's merger with Time Warner Cable would hurt Internet consumers and other Internet content providers.

"My concern is that Comcast will be able to use its clout in the broadband distribution market to obtain an anticompetitive advantage in the content market," Franken wrote. "Comcast can achieve this by blocking, degrading, raising costs for, or otherwise interfering with unaffiliated content that relies on Comcast's distribution network to reach consumers."

When contacted by CNET, a Netflix spokesperson said, "We have received Senator Franken's letter and will respond to it."