News

Martin Takes Charge at FCC

3/20/2005 7:00 PM Eastern

Washington— Is there anyone wired to the D.C. power grid who has needed to change his business card more often than Kevin Martin?

In the past 12 years, Martin has held nine jobs, the biggest one coming through last week when President Bush promoted him to chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

The Martin File
The FCC's new chairman at a glance:
Source: Multichannel News research
Date of Birth: Dec. 14, 1966, Charlotte, N.C.
Education: University of North Carolina, B.A.; Duke University, M.A.; Harvard Law School, J.D.
Family: married to Catherine Jurgensmeyer Martin
Employment: Clerk, U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveller, Miami, 1993-94
Associate, Wiley, Rein & Fielding, Washington D.C. 1994-97
Associate Independent Counsel, Washington, D.C., 1997
Legal advisor to FCC Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth 1997-99
Deputy General Counsel, Bush For President, Austin, Texas, 1999-2000
Deputy General Counsel, Bush-Cheney Transition Team, Washington, D.C. 2000-2001
Special Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, Washington, D.C. 2001
FCC member 2001
FCC chairman, 2005

Martin will oversee the cable, broadcasting, telephone, wireless phone, newspaper, consumer electronics, and Internet phone industries, each one prepared to fight an adverse FCC ruling all the way the U.S. Supreme Court.

The job routinely involves billion-dollar decisions and requires keen political skill — not just to balance the interests of media and telecom giants, but also to look out for the needs of consumers, state regulators and elected officials at the local, state and federal levels.

His elevation comes at a time of rapid technological change, prompted by a digital convergence that is assaulting procrustean business models and leapfrogging regulations adopted decades ago, in large part to counter monopolistic practices.

Martin, 38, officially became chairman on March 18, replacing Michael Powell, who held the job for about four years.

MIXED CABLE CALLS

Martin who joined the FCC in 2001 and promptly espoused a deregulatory philosophy, has produced a mixed record with respect to cable, an ally on broadband issues but a critic of program packages that expose children to inappropriate content. He also called on cable to offer more a la carte channels.

Last month, Martin, in a losing cause, voted to force cable systems to carry multiple programming services provided by each digital television station. The question now is whether the status quo that requires cable to carry just one service per station will hold during Martin's chairmanship.

He's an easygoing, soft-spoken North Carolinian with sandy blond hair and wire-rimmed glasses. In a speech early in his FCC career, he once noted that a reporter had compared his appearance to that of Harry Potter.

A Harvard Law School graduate with an M.A. in public policy from Duke University and a B.A. from the University of North Carolina, Martin has close political ties to the White House, where his wife Catherine, a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, works for the National Economic Council.

Two years ago, an FCC aide to Martin left to work in the West Wing office of Bush political adviser Karl Rove. Martin himself was a lawyer for the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign and helped out in Florida during the chaotic ballot recount in the weeks following the inconclusive election-day results.

Those connections probably helped Martin, as Bush had to pick between him and Michael Gallagher, director of the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, who had the support of former Commerce Secretary and Bush friend Donald Evans.

Martin said in a prepared statement that he was “deeply honored,” and thanked Bush for his decision.

“I look forward to working with the administration, Congress, my colleagues and the FCC's talented staff to ensure that American consumers continue to enjoy the benefits of the best communications system in the world,” he added. “I thank Chairman Powell for his excellent stewardship of this agency, and I look forward to continuing his efforts in bringing the communications industry into the 21st century.”

As a sitting FCC member, Martin will not need Senate confirmation.

Since 2001, Martin served in the one-vote Republican majority with Powell and Kathleen Abernathy. Martin's relationship with Powell was cordial in public. Behind the scenes, the two often sparred, creating tension that hampered Powell's ability to drive forward some of his agenda.

CHANGING COMMISSION

For at least a few months, the FCC will have two Republicans and two Democrats. Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) wants Bush to name his former aide, Earl Comstock, to fill the third GOP seat.

Comstock's selection would likely raise a red flag for cable. A Washington, D.C., telecommunications lawyer, Comstock represents EarthLink Inc., the national Internet-service provider that has urged the FCC and the federal courts to require cable to open its lines to competing ISPs at nondiscriminatory rates.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the FCC are to appear before the U.S. Supreme Court on March 29 to defend the FCC ruling that cable companies are not subject to open-access rules favored by EarthLink.

If the NCTA and FCC lose the case, Comstock, as a commissioner, would have a say in whether the agency should use its forbearance authority to keep cable-modem service deregulated.

Abernathy, confirmed by the Senate at the same time as Martin, is expected to leave the agency whenever the White House has a nominee to replace her.

Without advertising it, Martin made clear that Powell could not routinely rely on his vote. He and Powell clashed openly on some key issues, forcing Powell to think not just about good policy but also good politics.

In February 2003, Martin refused to back Powell's plan to overhaul phone-competition rules. Martin sided with FCC Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein to scuttle Powell's proposals.

Martin's defection was an embarrassing defeat for Powell.

He also took strong exception to an FCC staff decision in 2002 that allowed direct-broadcast satellite providers to provide local TV stations on more than one dish. In the end, Martin prevailed, as Congress last year passed a new law imposing a one-dish rule.

In a 2002 dissent, Martin refused go along with forcing TV-set makers to include over-the-air digital turners in nearly all new TV sets by July 2007. Martin argued that the mandate would impose costs on all TV-set consumers, even though the vast majority would use the units to watch cable or DBS.

The better result, Martin argued, would have been for the FCC to mandate that DTV sets include digital tuners and be digital-cable ready, noting that such sets would save consumers on set-top box rental costs.

On broadband, Martin endorsed Powell's deregulatory approach. Three years ago, he voted to keep cable's high-speed date service unregulated, a decision that cost local communities close to $500 million in annual franchise fees.

In a separate ruling the same year, Martin helped kill a proposal that would have required cable to contribute modem revenue to the universal-service program, which subsidizes phone service in rural and high-cost areas. He said he didn't want to impose an Internet tax.

Martin and Powell largely agreed on relaxation of media ownership rules.

Martin voted with Powell in June 2003 to ease local limits on cross-ownership of newspapers, radio and TV stations in the same market. The rules were later rejected by a federal court. Martin was particularly troubled by 1975 rule which banned the common ownership of a newspaper and a TV or radio station in the same market.

In 2002, FCC rules that compel cable operators to sell their satellite-delivered programming networks to DBS and other cable companies were to sunset in October unless the FCC extended them. Martin reluctantly supported extension. Abernathy voted to eliminate the rules, one of the few times she voted against Powell.

MUST-CARRY MUSINGS

On multicast must-carry, Martin claimed the public would benefit from access to more free, over the-air programming and that cable carriage of those channels was the only way for those channel to survive financially.

The burden on cable to carry multicast service, he added, would be less than the burden imposed by analog must carry and the law capped the amount of capacity cable had to set aside for local TV stations. That cap, Martin said, “has been upheld by the Supreme Court.”

Paul Gallant, a former FCC official now with the Stanford Washington Research Group, said it was unlikely Martin could reverse the multicast carriage ruling because the courts would have trouble accepting a sudden flip-flop by the FCC.

“Even though chairman Martin support multicast must-carry, it would be hard for the commission to reverse its February decision without running into trouble in court,” Gallant said.

Martin has also called on the cable and satellite industries to offer consumers “family friendly” programming tiers.

In January 2003, he said parents should be able to buy a tier appropriate for children and buy other channels individually. Parents were either unaware of blocking technology or didn't know how to use it, he said.

Without mentioning programming issues, NCTA president Kyle McSlarrow issued a statement congratulating Martin on his appointment.

“We look forward to continuing to work closely with Chairman Martin to maintain a deregulatory environment for competitive telecommunications services,” McSlarrow said.

American Cable Association CEO Matt Polka also issued a statement.

“We appreciate that commissioner Martin has taken significant time to know and understand the issues important to independent cable operators, and we look forward to continuing this discussion with him,” said Polka, whose group represents small cable companies.

September