Sununu Questions Martin’s Record

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Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) Tuesday questioned some policy calls of Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on whether Martin should receive another five years at the agency.

Sununu, a brash and vocal advocate of communications deregulation, indicated that Martin had been too willing to insert the FCC into places that should be left to the market.

“Without a doubt, [Martin] has pursued policies to restrict marketing of Internet services ,” Sununu said. “He’s pushed to establish must-carry regulations for multicasting. He’s advocated price controls on cable television.”

Martin, who became chairman in March 2005, has moved in both directions, deregulating digital-subscriber-line service in August 2005. But a few months ago, an FCC majority agreed to impose uiniversal-service-fund taxes on cable’s voice-over-Internet-protocol service -- an example of new technology subsidizing the old.

On the matter of multicast must-carry -- which would force cable operators to carry perhaps six programming service per digital-TV station -- Martin said he had no “current intention” of reviving the issue because there wasn’t an FCC majority in support. For years, Martin has advocated government-mandated multicast must-carry and urged cable to sell channels a la carte.

To the extent that he broke new ground, Martin made a vague reference to FCC movement on the issue of network neutrality, which involves policies that would restrict broadband-access providers from demanding payment from unaffiliated content providers. FCC staff, he said, was preparing a document designed to solicit public comment on ways of monitoring the conduct of broadband-access providers outside the context of formal complaints. Martin’s staff declined to offer further details.

Martin also disclosed that he had doubts about the FCC’s relaxation of broadcast-ownership rules in June 2003. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), a strong critic of the rules, then asked Martin why he voted to allow one company to own three TV stations, eight radio stations, the cable company and the dominant newspaper within the same local market.

“I did because I thought that was what the record indicated in certain of the largest markets,” said Martin, whom President Bush named to the FCC as a commissioner in 2001.

Martin also claimed that the FCC had the power today to use the $6.5 billion USF to subsidize rural broadband-infrastructure programs. But he said the expense of it would make expansion of the program impractical.

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