McDowell Sees FCC Role in Cable Franchising

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Federal Communications Commission member Robert McDowell supports agency involvement to ensure that phone companies can enter local cable-TV markets without having to overcome a lot of red tape.

“I do think we can do a lot to help speed the deployment of video penetration and marry it up with that broadband penetration by clearing some of that regulatory underbrush,” McDowell said Tuesday in his first meeting with reporters at FCC headquarters.

Addressing a number of issues important to the cable industry, McDowell said multicast-must-carry requirements were beyond FCC authority; network-neutrality regulation of the Internet was premature; and more a la carte programming options would likely emerge as a result of consumer demand.

On net neutrality, he said it was unclear what form government regulation of broadband-access providers would take because charges of misconduct have been speculative.

“It’s sort of like the French goalie in the World Cup shootout [who] was diving to the left and all of the balls were going to the right. Does government want to be the French goalie in that case?” McDowell said. “Let’s wait and see. Let’s continue to be vigilant.”

McDowell, appointed by President Bush, joined the FCC June 1 to give the GOP a 3-2 advantage at the agency for the first time since March 2005. Although he said his regulatory philosophy was market-oriented, he supports government intervention to correct market failures.

On cable franchising, FCC chairman Kevin Martin supports imposing a deadline on local governments to act on applications. But the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, disputing that local governments have been slow to act, has told the FCC that the courts are the proper forum to settle franchising disputes.

McDowell suggested disagreement with the NCTA by asserting that the FCC “does have that authority” over local government. But McDowell cautioned that the commission should wait a few months to see whether Congress addressed the issue. FCC involvement, he added, should preserve a meaningful role for local officials.

“I want to make sure we don’t go too far,” he said. “If there’s a cable coax line down in your backyard and you live in Wyoming, should you be calling Washington or writing Washington to get that fixed, versus your local municipality? So there are some practical, pragmatic issues to address, as well.”

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