WASHINGTON--The Federal Communications Commission has postponed indefinitely the start of its monthly meeting, at which it's supposed to vote on a controversial report that could lead to new regulations on the cable industry.
Chairman Kevin Martin emerged briefly from closed-door deliberations at FCC headquarters here midday Tuesday to tell reporters that commissioners were still negotiating how to handle an internal report about the state of cable industry competition. The meeting, which was originally scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. EST, was bumped to 11 a.m. and now has no new projected start time.
The report's conclusions could prove significant because of an obscure portion of federal law known as the 70/70 rule. By the FCC's interpretation, that provision says the agency can impose new regulations on cable companies if it finds both that 70 percent of American households have access to cable systems with 36 or more channels, and that 70 percent of those households actually subscribe.
And therein lies the controversy: According to recent published reports, the FCC competition report is expected to find that the share of Americans who subscribe to cable has climbed to 71.4 percent. The cable industry, however, says it has data to show that the threshold hasn't yet been met.
If the 70/70 rule ends up being evoked, critics say a likely candidate for new rules is Martin's longtime goal of mandating that cable operators offer "a la carte" packages of channels. Cable operators have long resisted that plan because they argue that it will actually raise prices for consumers.
Martin told reporters on Tuesday that he still believes that the data the FCC has used in crafting its latest report is "reliable." The "only question" the commissioners are currently weighing, he said, is whether the agency should also compel the cable industry itself to file its own data to supplement the report. If the commission votes to do that, it would give the industry only a "very short time frame" to respond, he added.
"There was never anything we were doing, except describing the current state of the marketplace," Martin said in apparent defense against his critics of late. Both Democratic and Republican members of Congress have written to him in recent weeks, arguing that competition in the video market--including Internet, satellite and telephone company offerings--is robust enough that new regulations would be unwise and unnecessary.
There was no immediate word on when the meeting would begin or whether the commissioners would go forward with the vote on the report, though Martin remarked, "the item is still on the agenda."