FCC Tables Cable Decisions

WASHINGTON FCC chairman Kevin Martin’s drive to push through tougher cable regulations hit a bump in the road Tuesday as he struggled to assemble enough votes to change the way the agency measures the industry’s market power.

Martin told reporters that the other commissioners had balked at his attempt to get them to declare that cable is available to more than 70 percent of the nation’s TV customers and that more than 70 percent of those that can buy cable actually pay for it. Under a 1984 law the FCC gets new power to regulate the industry, if the 70-70 test is triggered.

“Obviously the commissioners had great concerns about that,” he said, when he told reporters that the meeting scheduled for 9:30 wasn’t going to happen until after lunch.

Martin said there was still hope for a compromise on the agency’s annual video competition report as some commissioners were amenable to compelling the cable industry to give them enough information to decide whether the 70-70 threshold has been met.

“Yesterday the commissioners didn’t seem interested in that,” he said. “Today, there seems to be renewed interest in that. The commissioners are trying to figure out if there is a majority to support that.”

Martin said the cable companies would have a “short time line” to comply with the commission’s new data demands.

The cable industry, which includes providers such as Comcast and Time Warner Cable, argues its subscriber base is below 65 percent.

If granted further authority by a triggering of the 70-70 rule, Martin could push through other proposals disliked by the cable industry, including a so-called a la carte service model that would allow subscribers to pick and choose channels they want rather than accepting bundled packages from cable companies.

The agency’s two Republican commissioners, Deborah Taylor Tate and Robert McDowell, have questioned whether the report’s subscriber data are accurate. Jonathan Adelstein, one of two Democratic commissioners, has also expressed reservations.

In a letter sent last week, the House’s GOP leader, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, warned Martin that the FCC shouldn’t expand its regulatory authority when there’s ample competition. Twenty-three Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee also told Martin that the commission shouldn’t use the rule to impose new mandates on the cable industry.

The commissioners postponed a vote Tuesday on a proposal that, if approved, would have required broadcasters to lease excess channels to small businesses owned by women and minorities.

Martin, who said the commissioners needed more time discussing the issue, has championed the plan in past speeches to increase diversity in programming and media ownership. The channels would be available following the nation’s digital transition in early 2009.

But the cable industry is fearful the agency would force cable companies to carry those channels, which it strongly opposes.