FCC Opens Program-Access Rulemaking


The Federal Communications Commission Tuesday opened a long-awaited rulemaking on whether cable operators must continue to sell many of their video-programming services to satellite and phone-company rivals.

Key features of federal program-access rules are scheduled to expire Oct. 5 unless extended by the FCC. The rules were extended for five years in 2002 in a ruling narrowly supported by FCC chairman Kevin Martin, who was a regular FCC member at the time. In recent weeks, Martin has indicated his support for a second extension.

Under a 1992 law, the FCC has required cable companies to sell satellite-delivered programming in which they have an ownership interest to competing multichannel-video-programming distributors. Thus, Time Warner has been forced to sell CNN and HBO to such competitors as DirecTV, EchoStar Communications’ Dish Network and Verizon Communications’ FiOS TV service.

EchoStar in particular has asked both Congress and the FCC to extend the rules to cover cable-affiliated programming networks that are delivered terrestrially to MVPDs. In its proposed rulemaking, the FCC did not directly mention plans to close the so-called terrestrial loophole.

Last July, in approving the sale of Adelphia Communications, the FCC said Comcast and Time Warner could not withhold regional sports networks, whether satellite- or terrestrially delivered, from their pay TV rivals for a period of six years. Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia received an exemption with regard to distributors not under contract.