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Cable's other association

ACA is the long-distance lobby trying to raise its voice in D.C. 5/26/2002 08:00:00 PM Eastern

In a sea of Washington lobbyists, the American Cable Association is easy to overlook.

It's not hard to see why. The trade group for independent cable operators isn't based in Washington. Nor are its lawyers. Nor are any of its members.

But with a host of key issues on the front burner at the FCC and Congress, Pittsburgh-based ACA is aiming for a higher profile and a much bigger voice in Washington.

Unlike the main cable trade group, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, ACA's members don't own programming networks. They are just cable-system operators; most are small, although a handful rank among the top 25 MSOs.

By focusing on delivering cable service, ACA members say they reflect the true concerns of cable operators. They oppose NCTA on many issues. For instance, the ACA is fighting to preserve program-access rules, which require programmers affiliated with MSOs to sell their programming to other systems.

ACA isn't shy about asking regulators to impose conditions or block mergers either. NCTA is loath to comment on what often is a combination of two of its members.

"It became readily apparent a long time ago that small systems needed their own voice in Washington," says Mike Haislip, president of Armstrong Cable Services. "The costs of providing service stay very expensive when spread over 200 or even 200,000 customers versus 2,000,000 customers." Armstrong, with 210,000 subs, is the country's 18th-largest MSO. By contrast AT&T/Comcast, which would be the country's largest if allowed to merge, would boast 21.2 million.

ACA needs to become a true player at the FCC, where some of its key issues are bubbling. The FCC will decide by midsummer whether to let program-access rules expire Oct. 5. ACA also is asking the FCC to block EchoStar's plan to acquire DirecTV and is helping members apply for waivers to the FCC's mandated emergency-alert system improvements. The group also is on the same side as NCTA in opposing open-access rules for Internet service but would lobby for an exemption for small systems if the FCC changes course and decides to mandate carriage of competing ISPs on cable systems' platforms.

Perhaps ACA is making headway at the commission at long last. In order to curry ACA's endorsement for its FCC merger review, AT&T/Comcast officials last week pledged to keep "Headend in the Sky," the dominant digital cable-delivery system for smaller markets, available with competitive pricing.

ACA's FCC lobbying has been handled by association President Matthew Polka, who puddle-jumps from Pittsburgh on a regular basis, or by Christopher Cinnamon, head of Chicago law firm Cinnamon Mueller. Last month, ACA members in town for their annual Washington conference added the FCC to their usual round of Capitol Hill visits to get some face time with commissioners and staff.

So far, ACA has barely been even a small player in agency rulings, where it has been overshadowed by the NCTA, say current and former agency staffers. It's a different story in Congress, however, where ACA, then named Small Cable Business Association, helped persuade lawmakers to exempt small cable systems from rate regulation after lawmakers socked the industry with a host of new regulations in 1992.

"ACA gets a fair amount of traction, given their numbers," says an aide to Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.). "They provide an unfiltered perspective not clouded by dominant programming interests."

It also helps that ACA's 930 member systems are scattered around the country and have systems in many lawmakers' districts. NCTA, Polka tells policymakers, is the lobbyist for the top 10 cable behemoths except for No. 9 Mediacom, an ACA member.

ACA took its current name in 1999 after a rival group, Cable Telecommunications Association, was absorbed by NCTA. SCBA was formed in 1993 but didn't hire Polka and other paid staff until 1997.