FCC Ready for Program-Access Debate

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The Federal Communications Commission is planning to take up program-access
rules at its Oct. 11 public meeting, according to agency and industry

The rules -- which require the sale of some cable programming to competitors
-- are to expire next October unless the FCC opts to extend them. The cable
industry is urging the agency to allow the rules to sunset, while the
direct-broadcast satellite industry is asking for the rules to be both extended
and strengthened.

At the meeting, the FCC is expected to adopt a notice of proposed rulemaking.
The document is expected to be wide-ranging in its approach, without any formal
tentative conclusions. However, FCC chairman Michael Powell has suggested that
it might be premature to allow the rules to sunset.

Under the rules, cable operators are required to sell satellite-delivered
cable networks they own to their competitors. The rules -- in effect since 1993
-- are credited with helping the DBS industry to get on its feet and grow

The DBS industry wants the FCC to continue enforcing the rules and to extend
coverage to include cable-owned networks that are distributed terrestrially.

EchoStar Communications Corp and DirecTV Inc. filed complaints accusing
Comcast Corp. of evading the program-access rules by distributing Comcast
SportsNet in Philadelphia via microwave. The FCC rejected the complaints, saying
that Comcast was entitled to withhold the popular regional sports network.

According to sources, it was unclear whether the FCC -- to the extent that it
plans to extend the rules -- would call for a one-year, five-year or 10-year
extension, or call for the use of another benchmark that would trigger a sunset

The rule in question concerns a ban on exclusive contracts between cable MSOs
and satellite-delivered networks they own in whole or in part.

Some in the cable industry have noted that if the FCC allowed the exclusivity
ban to sunset, it is possible that exclusive deals could still be prohibited
under other FCC rules that prohibit discriminatory conduct by vertically
integrated cable programmers.