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FCC agenda in disarray in wake of questions and concerns

Efforts to re-regulate cable industry fall victim to intense lobbying.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's efforts to re-regulate the cable industry were in disarray Tuesday as the agency repeatedly postponed a meeting amid gridlock over whether to declare that cable operators have achieved market dominance and need to be reined in.

Martin recently concluded that cable had reached this threshold, but he based the assessment on data whose accuracy and thoroughness has been questioned not only by the cable industry but also by some of his agency colleagues.

The developments follow intense lobbying by the cable industry to block the proposals as letters poured in from lawmakers expressing concerns about the impact of Martin's plans. During an informal briefing with reporters, Martin recommended that cable operators be required to file additional subscriber statistics to help the FCC decide whether cable has reached the so-called 70/70 threshold that triggers fresh regulation. The benchmark states that cable service is available to more than 70 percent of households and serves at least 70 percent of them.

"There wasn't a majority" of commissioners interested in collecting more cable data Monday, Martin said, adding that it appears there might be Tuesday. "As soon as we work that out, we'll figure out if we're going to go forward with that issue or not," he said.

The cable finding was supposed to be in the agency's latest report on video competition, to be voted on this morning. An FCC spokesman clarified that the report is likely to be adopted this afternoon regardless of the status of the "70/70" matter. Also uncertain was the fate of an item that would modify the agency's leased access and program service rules. The FCC had planned to consider lowering by 75 percent the fees that programmers pay to lease cable capacity in an effort to promote independent channels. It also was poised to require that cable-carriage disputes be settled through FCC arbitration instead of private negotiations.

"I'm not sure exactly where that will end up," Martin said of the proposals.

Early Tuesday, the agency dropped from the agenda a plan to mandate cable carriage of ancillary broadcast digital signals if they are leased to new entrants and small businesses, including minority- and women-owned businesses.

"The commissioners wanted some more time to think about the minority ownership proposals that we've put forward, so we removed those from the agenda," Martin told reporters.

On Monday, a dozen House members wrote the chairman to complain about the initiative.

"You have presented no evidence to support your assertion that multicast must-carry would promote program diversity and increase programming choices for consumers," they argued. They reasoned it would have the "opposite effect by putting additional broadcast channels at the front of the line ahead of the many diverse programming services offered by cable."

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association argues that the approach would limit capacity for other channels.