House GOP Turns Up Heat On FCC Chairman Martin

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Washington – Nearly two-dozen House Republicans from the committee that oversees the Federal Communications Commission want FCC chairman Kevin Martin to pull back from his effort to load more regulatory burdens on the cable industry at a time of unprecedented competition in the video programming market.

“Such actions are unsupported by the record of significant competition in the video programming marketplace, and would be harmful to innovation and consumers,” the lawmakers said in a letter to be sent Nov. 20.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the most senior Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, signed the letter along with 22 other Republicans on the panel. Although House Republicans can complain about the FCC under Martin, their actual leverage is minimal because Democrats control the flow of legislative action on Capitol Hill.

Republican Martin, an unrelenting cable critic appointed by President Bush, is hoping to adopt rules that would prevent Comcast from making a major cable acquisition; that would force more cable carriage of local TV station content; and that would slash by 75% the price that third-party programmers pay cable operators for carriage, also called leased access.

“Onerous rate regulation of leased access makes little sense when the [FCC] is appropriately deregulating other cable rates as required by statute because of effective competition, and when YouTube and other Internet services provide a similar outlet on an even wider scale,” the lawmakers said.

National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow said last week that Martin’s goal was to inflict regulatory pain routinely on cable until the industry agreed to sell channels to consumers on an a la carte basis. For years, Martin has pressured cable to provide more a la carte options.

Martin also wants the FCC to find that 70% of households subscribe to cable, a penetration threshold found in a 1984 cable law that could give the FCC authority to regulate cable operators as common carriers and set the price of many of their retail programming services.

Martin is calling on the FCC to invoke what is known as the 70/70 test, defined by law as the point when 70% of households are passed by cable systems with at least 36 channels and 70% of such households actually subscribe. Martin has been strongly criticized that he is relying on inaccurate data.

“The new proposal to invoke the 70/70 provision is inappropriate at best and contradicts the statute at worst,” the GOP lawmakers said. “The 70/70 rule is meant as a tool to respond to a decrease in program diversity. Consumers now have at their finger tips an unprecedented amount of content from a large number of sources.”

The FCC’s next opportunity to enact some or all of Martin’s anti-cable agenda is the Nov. 27 public meeting in Washington, D.C.

The House Republicans concluded their letter with a demand that the FCC provide the committee by Nov. 26 with a description of all the punitive cable actions Martin has teed up for votes, ranging from a la carte mandates to “invasive interactive set-top box obligations.”

They also demanded the see the data that support the conclusion that the 70/70 test has been met. Martin’s one source is a publication whose owner insisted last week that the data cannot be used to verify a 70/70 test finding because not all cable operators submitted their subscriber and homes-passed totals.

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