McSlarrow Fields Questions on Martin "Crusade"

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FCC Chairman Kevin Martin appears to be on a one-man crusade against cable, said an attendee at the Cable Television Public Affairs Association forum in Washington, framing a question to National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Kyle McSlarrow.

McSlarrow told his interviewer, CNN's Zain Verjee, that he was not really going to address that, but then he did, sort of.

McSlarrow gave credit to the FCC for some deregulation on the video side and an important decision on interconnection with telcos that helped cable, but he also said Martin has "not been easy" to work with.

Martin has pushed cable a la carte, for one thing, which the NCTA says is a financially unworkable model that could decrease diversity of programming voices. Martin also attempted to secure multicast must-carry rights for broadcasters, which NCTA argues is a taking of cable property and a thumb on the scale of retransmission-consent negotiations.

He has also floated a new idea that would expand must carry by giving DTV multicast channels leased by broadcasters to minorities and small businesses the same carriage rights as TV stations. Then there was the decision by the FCC's Media Bureau, backed by Martin, not to grant the cable industry another waiver of the ban on integrated digital set-top boxes--scheduled to go into effect July 1.

When asked about that decision, McSlarrow said that was one of the areas in which it had "not been easy" to work with Martin. McSlarrow said he was puzzled that the commission would require the industry to add $80 per set-top for no added consumer value. Instead, the industry wants more time to develop a cheaper and easier way to separate out the security and channel-surfing functions, which the FCC hopes will create a retail market in the set-tops.

The FCC has conceded the online version is preferable, but Martin says without a deadline--the FCC has already waived the ban a couple of times--what he called the industry's inaction had "hindered innovation, deterred competition and harmed consumers." 

McSlarrow also took exception with the FCC's, and others', criticism that the U.S. is behind other developed countries in the roll-out of broadband. He called that assertion "false," saying broadband has "exploded" and is "rolling."

McSlarrow said that how the FCC decides its review of cable-ownership rules would be an "important test of where this FCC is going." If so, McSlarrow probably won't like that direction.

Later in the forum, Rudy Brioche, legal advisor to FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, confirmed that the commissioners had been sent an item that would reinstate a 30% ownership cap on cable households. NCTA says no cap is needed given the size and scope of the competition, particularly from telcos that he says dwarf individual cable companies.

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