Washington – Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin on Tuesday had to postpone indefinitely the agency’s monthly public meeting because of his inability to win majority support for a plan designed to give the FCC broad new authority to hammer the cable industry with new regulations.
It appeared that Martin’s effort to convince two of his colleagues that cable had reached at least 70% household penetration had collapsed, forcing him to come up with a face-saving alternative.
Evidently, Martin is now willing to remove from a report to Congress a finding that cable systems with 36 or more channels are available to 70% of U.S. households and 70% of households subscribe to systems with that minimum number of channels
“Obviously, a lot of the commissioners had raised concerns about that previously,” Martin told reporters. [On Monday], I had suggested to the commissioners after talking to them, ‘Why don’t we just end up requiring the industry to file all the data that would be necessary for us to determine that?’ Yesterday, the commissioners didn’t seem interested in that. There wasn’t a majority of it. Today there seems to be renewed interest in that.”
If the so-called 70/70 test has been met, a 1984 cable law allows the FCC to “promulgate any additional rules necessary to provide diversity of information sources.”
In the hands of committed cable-basher like Martin, a 70/70 finding could be a weapon to regulate cable operators as common carriers and set the price of many of their retail programming services. Martin could use the finding to attempt to require cable to lease broadband capacity to third-party Internet Service Providers.
The FCC’s meeting was supposed to begin at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. It was officially postponed until 11 a.m. Martin addressed reporters at about noon to say that that the meeting would be delayed indefinitely after his plans for cable blew up.
“I didn’t want everybody to be sitting here and miss lunch when I can’t tell them exactly when it will start,” Martin said.
Martin had to retreat on other fronts.
Martin’s plan called for launching a notice of proposed rulemaking designed to allow minority, religious and small business entities to lease spectrum from digital TV stations on a voluntary basis. But those eligible spectrum-leasing entities could turn around and demand carriage from local cable operators.
“I think that the commissioners wanted some more time to think about the minority ownership proposals that we put forth, so we removed those from the agenda,” Martin told reporters later.
Martin was also fuzzy on whether the FCC would adopt his proposal to force cable operators to charge no more than 10 cents per month, per subscriber to leased access programmers, a 75% reduction from current FCC-set rates.
“I don’t know for sure where the commissioners on are the leased access rate item,” he said. “I am not exactly sure where they will end up.”
Martin did not address the status of his proposed rules that could potentially force Comcast and Time Warner, as a result of compulsory arbitration, to carry the Hallmark Channel and the NFL Network and pay the networks handsome license fees.