Judges skeptical of EchoStar's access claim

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Federal judges laid a verbal beating on EchoStar Communications Corp.'s
attorney Tuesday, casting serious doubt on the company's effort to gain
court-ordered access to Comcast Corp.'s regional sports programming in the
Philadelphia area.

EchoStar claimed that Comcast is violating government rules requiring cable
programmers to sell most of their content to satellite-TV providers and cable
overbuilders.

Unfortunately for EchoStar, the rule applies only to programming transmitted
to system operators via satellite, and sports network Comcast SportsNet is
distributed by Comcast's extensive fiber optic network in the Philadelphia
area.

The Federal Communications Commission has rejected EchoStar's argument that
the practice violates the letter of the law, as well as the spirit.

EchoStar attorney Pantelis Michalopoulos charged that Comcast relied on fiber
to transmit the programming primarily to evade the program-access rule and the
FCC did not sufficiently investigate the charge.

'They took at face value Comcast's contention that it did not try to evade,'
Michalopoulos said.

Although judges' comments during oral arguments don't always reveal the
direction they will decide, they were especially critical of the satellite-TV
company's demand for FCC investigation into Comcast's business practices.

'You wanted a fishing expedition,' said Judge David Sentelle, the most vocal
of three skeptical judges. 'You had nothing to go on.'

Sentelle suggested that Comcast's exploitation of the satellite-delivery
loophole was no different than taxpayers' reliance on accounting technicalities
to legally pare obligations to Uncle Sam.

'In tax law, there's a big difference between evasion and avoidance,' he
added.

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