Martin: I'm No Cable-Hater

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Las Vegas — FCC chairman Kevin Martin marked the opening of The Cable Show last Monday (May 7) by asserting that his conflicts with the cable industry were the result of a principled regulatory philosophy that championed the entry and survival of competitors over the turf-protecting impulses of incumbents with market power.

“This means that sometimes my policies favor the cable industry — as they typically do when it is a matter of entry into new markets like the voice market. And, sometimes they do not — when it is an issue of someone else's entry into the video market,” Martin said in a 12-minute speech that reprised many of his struggles with the cable industry during his 25 months in office.

Before launching into a defense of his policies, Martin made light of recent headlines that portrayed him as a cable antagonist by disclosing that his personal video-programming consumption habits were decidedly cable friendly.

“I actually don't dislike cable. Quite the contrary — I am an avid cable customer. I subscribe to digital cable, I have three set-top boxes, two [digital video recorders], high-speed access, and Wi-Fi all provided by my cable company,” Martin said.

Although Martin could have avoided unpleasant subjects, he emphatically did not. He repeated his support for the a la carte sale of cable networks.

“I don't believe subscribers should have to buy Spike TV in order to get Discovery,” he said. He quipped that he wouldn't dwell on the a la carte issue because “I do not want to incite a riot at the very opening of the show.”

Martin insisted every free digital programming service offered by a local TV station should be carried by the local cable system.

But for the first time, Martin said that cable's free-market opposition to multicast must carry was unjustified especially because cable refused to allow customers the free-market choice of buying cable networks a la carte.

“Your industry opposed mandatory carriage, saying consumers should be able to pick and choose the channels they want, not have programming forced upon them. But if that is really your belief, then it should hold true whether we are talking about broadcast channels or your own cable programming channels. You can't have it both ways,” he said.

Lastly, Martin noted that the FCC has been granting waivers from the July 1 integrated set-top box ban but only in circumstances justified by economic and technological rationales, such as a commitment to convert systems to all-digital by the end of 2008 as in the case of Bend Broadband.

“Fundamentally, I am for innovation. It leads to new and improved services, and ultimately lower prices. When someone is innovating with voice competition, I am on their side. When I am concerned someone may be trying to slow set-top box innovation, I am not,” Martin said.

Although his disputes with cable have grabbed the headlines, Martin said that he agreed with cable on the need to avoid network neutrality regulations and the need to ensure that cable's VoIP customers can place calls to the customers of AT&T and Verizon Communications. Martin said he backed cable in the recent brouhaha over cable's access to Major League Baseball's “MLB Extra Innings” out-of-market game package.

“Those areas of agreement, unfortunately, rarely get much attention,” Martin said.

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