Barton, Upton to Martin: No Multicast Mandates

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Multicast must-carry would violate communications law and the Bush administration’s free-market philosophy and should not be imposed on cable or satellite operators, House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said in a letter Wednesday to Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin.

Martin is attempting to round up a majority at the FCC to require cable operators to carry every digital programming service beamed by a single TV station in an expansion of current rules that mandate carriage of a single programming service per station.

“We believe that any such order would be inconsistent with the existing must-carry provisions [in the 1992 Cable Act],” the lawmakers said. “Forcing carriage of additional broadcast streams would only reduce the amount of capacity available for non-broadcast programming at a time when consumers are increasingly watching non-broadcast content and calling for more carriage of independent programming."

Martin was hoping to approve multicast must-carry at the FCC’s June 15 meeting, but he decided Wednesday to move the meeting to June 21 to accommodate new FCC member Robert McDowell, a Republican who was sworn in last Thursday and who gives the FCC a 3-2 GOP majority for the first time since March 2005.

The FCC rejected multicast must-carry in 2001 and again in 2005. Martin, who opposed the 2005 ruling, is reportedly intending to justify a policy reversal in part on passage of a law in February that requires the termination of analog broadcasting Feb. 17, 2009. The idea is that multicast must-carry would serve to advance the new important governmental interest in a successful transition to digital by the 2009 hard date.

In their letter, Barton and Upton ruled out justifying multicast must-carry on the decision to cut off analog TV on a date certain.

“If Congress had intended to require carriage of multiple streams, it would have explicitly done so either in the original must carry-provisions [in the 1992 Cable Act] or in the digital-television provisions of the Deficit Reduction Act [that included the 2009 hard date],” Barton and Upton said.

They added that because Congress had not imposed multicast must-carry, “it would be inappropriate for the [FCC] to attempt to do so by regulatory fiat now.”

Barton and Upton noted that multicast must-carry would run counter to "the market-oriented philosophy that has guided communications policy during the Bush administration." Martin was appointed FCC chairman by President Bush last March.

If Martin gains approval at the FCC for multicast must-carry, he would do so over the objections of the three most important congressional Republicans with direct FCC oversight.

Earlier Wednesday, Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said the FCC should defer to Congress on whether to force cable companies to carry multiple programming services of local digital-TV stations (www.multichannel.com/article/CA6341648.html?display=Breaking+News).

"I hope that if it's going to be done, it'll be done by Congress and not the FCC," Stevens told reporters after an address to hundreds of cable-industry officials.

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