(Updates with hearing comments)
WASHINGTON, April 9 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee's chairman on Wednesday urged Comcast Corp to extend its commitment to Internet neutrality beyond 2018 as the cable company's executive reassured lawmakers the proposed merger with Time Warner Cable Inc would not hurt consumers.
Executives from the two largest U.S. cable providers faced the first public hearing about their proposed $45.2 billion deal, reiterating that the merger would not eliminate any choices for consumers as the two carriers do not directly compete with each other anywhere in the country.
"The transaction will not lead to any reduction in competition or consumer choice in any market," Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen told lawmakers, later adding: "Nothing in this transaction will cause anyone's bills to go up."
The proposed merger has provoked the ire of public interest groups, which worry that a bigger Comcast would have free rein to raise cable rates as well as too much clout over what Americans access online and watch on television.
"I have heard from over a 100,000 consumers who oppose this deal," said Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, who has written to regulators to express his concerns about the merger but had stopped short of saying the deal must be stopped.
"I'm against this deal," Franken said at Wednesday's hearing. "I believe this deal will result in fewer choices, higher prices, and even worse service for my constituents."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy urged Comcast to commit beyond 2018 to so-called net neutrality rules, which ban Internet providers from slowing down or blocking access to content online.
Comcast agreed to the rules through 2018 as part of its 2011 deal to buy NBC Universal, and has promised to extend that commitment to the Time Warner Cable networks.
"The conditions that currently apply to Comcast should not be seen as the end point, but rather the minimum level of protection that should apply to promote competition online," Leahy said. "I urge Comcast to support stronger rules that will protect consumers and drive innovation."
The net neutrality rules were struck down in court in January, but the Federal Communications Commission is reviewing how it can rewrite them.
Cohen said that, due to that, Comcast is unlikely to need to extend its commitment beyond 2018 because he expected the FCC to set industrywide net neutrality standards.
"I can't imagine that the commission is not going to have those rules in place well before 2018," he said.
Some lawmakers expressed concerns about Comcast's ability to negotiate rates that would hurt independent programmers or otherwise abuse their size as the leading cable provider.
"Right now, they're both judge and jury," James Bosworth from Back9Network, an independent golf channel, told lawmakers about negotiating carriage of content with Comcast.
In an effort to win approval, Comcast has pledged to divest 3 million subscribers so the combined company's customer base of 30 million would be just under 30 percent of the U.S. pay television market. The combined company would also serve between 20 percent and 40 percent of the high-speed Internet market, Comcast said in a filing on Tuesday with the FCC.
The company also said its rivals no longer consist of other cable or satellite TV companies, but also companies like Google Inc, Apple Inc, Netflix Inc and Amazon.com Inc that have made progress in competing against Comcast with video content, while cable operators have lost subscribers.
"If this transaction is approved, it will give us the scale and reach to innovate and compete against our national and global competitors," Cohen told lawmakers on Wednesday.
Lawmakers do not have a role in deciding whether the deal wins approval from the Justice Department, which is reviewing whether the merger complies with antitrust law, and the FCC, which has a broader public-interest standard.
However, the hearing presented an opportunity for companies to defend their deal and opponents to air their concerns.
"The issue before antitrust officials and communications regulators is really very, very simple," said Gene Kimmelman, a vocal opponent of the merger as head of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge and a former Justice Department antitrust official. "If we want more innovative, low-price Internet-delivered services, this merger must be rejected."
(Reporting by Diane Bartz and Alina Selyukh; Editing by Ros Krasny, Bernard Orr and Jonathan Oatis)