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As expected, a panel discussion between CEOs who lead the nation's satellite TV services became heated at Tuesday's SkyFORUM symposium Tuesday in New York City.

While the panelists traded barbs at times, they still managed to keep the conversation on track concerning the pending $26 billion merger between EchoStar and DirecTV, the deal's targeting of cable and its lock on the multichannel marketplace, and what the transaction could mean for rural residents. During the conversation, one side of the podium, with EchoStar Chairman and CEO Charlie Ergen and DirecTV Chairman and CEO Eddy Hartenstein, took on the other side, with Pegasus CEO Mark Pagon and Bob Phillips, President and CEO of the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative.

Phillips, who has voiced strong opposition to the proposed merger, said the deal to combine DBS assets would leave one choice for rural residents, "and in my definition that is a monopoly." Merger support, led by Hartenstein, stuck to the message that the deal is good for efforts aimed at competing more effectively with a much larger, entrenched cable giant.

While some said the merger will eliminate choice, Ergen pointed out that there are emerging entrants that could challenge the combined company, such as SES Global and its recently-announced plans for a DBS service, Pegasus and its Ka-Band spectrum, and the multipoint video and data distribution service (MVDDS) attracting wireless entrants such as Northpoint Technology and MDS America.

Asked if EchoStar put SES up to lobbying for its own DBS license to serve the United States - in an effort to help EchoStar's regulatory agenda in Washington, D.C., - Ergen said, "We're not that smart."

Ergen said all documentation relating to review of the merger has been sent to the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department's antitrust division, which are handling scrutiny of the deal. He said the process for approving the merger could proceed through summer.

Opponents of the merger surfaced in the afternoon during the packed conference. One pressed Ergen in the hallway on carriage of The Word Network (Ergen said a merged entity would carry the channel, but he defended EchoStar by saying the company already has a strong ethnic and public interest programming slate).

A flier was circulated complaining about the merger, EchoStar's relationship with employees attempting to unionize, and its lack of carriage of minority-oriented programming. During a post-SkyFORUM chat with reporters, Ergen dismissed the protesters as "proxies for those folks" who are opposed to the deal.

From http://www.skyreport.com (Used with permission)
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