FCC’s Fall Agenda Includes Retrans, USF Reforms


Washington — The Federal Communications Commission
last week held a back-to-school digital communications
primer for parents.

The agency could as easily have held a back-to-work primer
for staffers who face a busy fall, or at least pressure from industry,
public-interest groups and others to
get to work on some key initiatives.

That work will come under the scrutiny
of the House Energy & Commerce
Committee, which last week made reforming
the FCC one of its fall priorities.

Cable operators will be particularly
focused on retransmission-consent
reforms and the agency’s plan for remaking
the Universal Service Fund in
broadband’s image.

Retransmission-consent reforms:
While broadcasters would be happy
with inaction on the retransmission-
consent front, cable operators are
pushing the FCC to vote out its pending
rulemaking, preferably with tougher
reforms than it initially signaled. The
commission cut off comments on the matter in late June.

Members of the American Television Alliance, an alliance
of cable and satellite operators and others, has been pushing
for action, citing a host of retrans deals that are either in negotiations
or expiring at the end of this month.

Two weeks ago, in a sharply worded e-mail message,
Rocco Commisso — chairman and CEO of alliance member
Mediacom Communications — chided the commission
for what he called its “inexplicable inaction.” The
commission is likely to get some questions from Congress
about the whereabouts of its decision if there are multiple
impasses before the FCC weighs in.

Universal service reform: The FCC has had no shortage of
informal advisers on how it should reform the Universal Service
Fund. The FCC wants to migrate the fund from its supporting
telephone service to promoting broadband; update
it to reflect the rise of voice-over-Internet protocol telephony
and other technologies; control the size of the fund; and cut
down on waste, fraud and abuse.

Most everyone agrees on those goals. But there is
plenty of disagreement over execution — particularly
of a telco-backed plan cable operators say tips the scales
toward their phone-company competition.

Either way, the FCC has pushed the timetable for offering
its own plan back by several months.

AT&T/T-Mobile merger review: The FCC’s timetable
has it rendering a decision on that proposed $39 billion
merger by late fall. Odds are long on approval after the Justice
Department filed suit against the deal.

Commercial loudness: As of the beginning of next
month, the FCC will be in the business of enforcing new
restrictions on the volume of commercials on cable and
broadcast TV, per a Congressional mandate. Cable operators,
especially smaller and midsized ones, will be looking
for waivers from the mandate.

Media-ownership rule review: The 3rd U.S. Circuit
Court of Appeals has rejected an appeal of its July decision
vacating the loosened newspaper-broadcast crossownership
rules on procedural grounds and remanding
them to the FCC for better justification or a different approach.
Broadcasters want to get rid of the ban altogether,
or would at least like some regulatory certainty that
recognizes over-the-air TV stations are in a fight for survival
against competing delivery systems, including FCCpromoted
wireless broadband providers.

Spectrum auctions:
Primarily an issue for broadcasters,
spectrum auctions also
affect cable operators. That’s because
MSOs will need compensation
for any cost of adjusting their
equipment to carry newly moved
or merged TV-station operations.
The spectrum issue will also determine
whether wireless will become
a strong competitor — or complement
— to cable.

Broadcasters have been pushing
the FCC for details on plans for how
to reconfigure the broadcast band
after spectrum is reclaimed and
auctioned off for wireless broadband.
A well-placed agency source
said there are a variety of options
that can be implemented, depending
on the language in pending legislation.

The FCC won’t say how it will configure that auction or
repacking until legislation passes, as the 10th anniversary
of the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks is marked without
passage of a spectrum-auction bill, there will be added
pressure on Congress and the FCC.

Missing members: Ajit Pai and Jessica Rosenworcel
are still the leading candidates for the empty FCC seat
vacated by Republican Meredith Attwell Baker and the
vacancy that will be created by the departure at year’s end
of commissioner Michael Copps, according to various
sources. As the picks of Senate Commerce Committee
chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Mitch
McConnell (R-Ky.), the minority leader, their nominations
are expected to be paired up and sent to the Senate
sometime this fall.