Martin to House: I’m Not Picking on Cable Operators

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Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin Wednesday denied to a House subcommittee that he has been “picking” on the cable industry since taking control of the agency two years ago.

Martin has made a number of moves, and has a few more in the works, that have angered cable operators, who believe the Bush appointee has decided to punish the industry because it won’t yield on a Martin policy priority: selling channels on an a la carte basis.

“I don’t think we are picking on them, but I have to confess that I think most of the industries we regulate complain at one time or another that I’m picking on them whenever we don’t end up agreeing,” Martin said during a four-hour appearance before the House Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee.

Seated beside the other four FCC members, Martin was peppered with questions on a broad range of subjects, including broadband policy, cable-franchise relief for phone companies, spectrum auctions, retransmission consent and network neutrality.

Martin took some heat for his management of the agency, which has involved heavy reliance on just a few trusted aides and prolonged decision-making, such as a TV-violence study that Congress wanted from the FCC in January 2005.

“There is a consistent thread about the commission and that it is nontransparent [and] has a heavy-handed decision-making process during your tenure at chairman,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.). “I’m being very rough on you, but I think these are things we need to talk about and get out on the table.”

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the most senior Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, raised the matter of Martin’s rocky relationship with cable.

“I’ve had a number of cable operators in to see me in the last couple of months and they are of the opinion, chairman Martin, that you are picking on them, that you are treating them unfairly and that the commission is treating them unfairly on a whole series of issues,” Barton said.

As an example, Barton pointed to the FCC’s December 2006 ruling in which local governments were ordered to approve or reject cable service applications by phone companies within 90 days. But the FCC postponed a decision to apply the same 90-day condition when cable incumbents seek to renew their service contracts.

“What's your answer to the concern that they’ve told me about that they are being picked on?” Barton said.

Martin explained that the FCC could apply the 90-day shot clock to cable renewals because the FCC hadn’t sought public comment on that policy change.

“I didn’t think we had the legal notice to actually apply the rules to them, so we immediately sought that notice,” Martin said. “We tentatively concluded that we’ll extend it to them, and we will within the next six months.”

Meanwhile, Martin is pushing for rules that would force cable carriage of more local-TV-station programming and for rules that would bar a cable company from serving more than 30% of pay TV subscribers nationally -- a proposal that could threaten Comcast’s ability to add customers through internal growth or horizontal acquisition.

“A cap on the cable industry is something that both Comcast and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association have opposed, and we believe that the record in front of the FCC provides little support for a cable-ownership cap at any level and absolutely no support for a cap of 30%,” Comcast executive vice president David Cohen said.

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