Big Government vs. Smaller Ops

The cable industry’s regulatory environment has heated up in the past year, with potential new set-top-box rules and the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to back off on retransmission-consent reform just the latest in a long list of cable-centric rules that could place undue burdens on operators large and small. While limited resources would make it hard for small, independent operators to fight lengthy regulatory battles, they have the American Cable Association to do it for them.

As The Independent Show in Orlando, Fla., drew near, ACA president and CEO Matt Polka spoke with Multichannel News senior finance editor Mike Farrell about how small operators can deal with the changing climate. An edited transcript follows.

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MCN:What are the biggest issues for small operators going into the show?

Matt Polka: The theme of the show is, “Refocus and Reconnect.” I think that is appropriate in many ways. I would also say recommit. We’ve never had a year like this where we are under such enormous regulatory strain, where the types of important rulemakings that are moving at the commission, each on their own, could have a significant impact on our members’ ability to deploy more broadband service. We’re telling our members to refocus, reconnect and recommit, so you can be strong in the face of this storm.

As part of that recommitting, we’re saying, “Recommit with us at ACA so your voice can increasingly be heard.” We’re also telling our members to look at their customer service as a key differentiator that will help them maintain a strong positon and will also keep them from scrutiny.

A couple of weeks ago, Sen. [Claire] McCaskill (DMo.) and Sen. [Rob] Portman (R-Ohio) had a hearing regarding customer service for primarily the larger MVPDs. And while that hearing wasn’t focused on our members, it’s a good lesson to never ever take anything from a customer-service perspective for granted, [to] ensure that we as cable operators are presenting the best cable customer service we can provide and demonstrating that value that we are a vital connection to the community.

There are four primary issues from a rulemaking perspective: The set-top box rulemaking; the rulemaking on business data services, otherwise known as special access; the broadband privacy rulemaking at the FCC; and then just the implementation of Title II. Each one of these is a specific regulatory effort — although [with] Title II, the FCC hasn’t said what it might do yet — each one of those areas are crucial because of the cost impact to comply with the regulation, man hours, paperwork hours, the diversion of resources from deployment of broadband service to what we see as needless regulatory compliance.

MCN:It seemed like all of the indications pointed to the FCC finally doing something on the retransmission-consent reform front. How will inaction affect the industry going forward?

MP: Based on even as late as late last week [July 15] meetings with the bureau and other commission staff indicated there was going to be an order. For [FCC chairman Tom Wheeler] to say, “Nah, I don’t think so,” we’re shocked by that. I think what it’s going to mean — this isn’t the year when most agreements come up, it’s next year — unless something changes at the FCC or at the Hill, we’re going to see the impact of basically an unfettered broadcast industry that has carte blanche to do whatever it wants. That’s not a result that anybody wants.

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MCN:This year is an election year. Does that mean even more change is in store for the industry?

MP: We’re looking ahead to what’s going to happen in 2017. Heavens knows what is going to happen in the presidential elections. We’re going to have to deal with a new administration, most likely an interim FCC chair and then a new FCC chair. There will be a new head of the Energy & Commerce committee in the House because of term limits there; it’s unknown whether the Senate is going to flip from Republican to Democratic and whether [Democratic] Sen. [Bill] Nelson from Florida will be the chairman or [Republican] Sen. [John] Thune from South Dakota will remain the chairman.

We’re telling our members regardless of all of this uncertainty in the political environment, we at ACA are well-positioned because we’ve done the homework, we’ve done the grassroots, we’ve done the groundwork, so regardless of these possible changes we can stay focused on our policy objective moving forward.

One of the big issues that remains is whether [FCC Democrat Jessica] Rosenworcel is renominated and how that could affect the commission, and whether chairman Wheeler, as is tradition, steps down. There could be some bills on the Hill passed during the lameduck session, like an enhanced transparency exemption extension bill.

The Senate not too long ago passed a small-business broadband bill that increased the number of subscribers that subscribe to an ISP from 100,000 to 250,000 to comply with the FCC enhanced transparency requirements. That bill is likely to get passed at year-end. The rest of the Hill agenda for this year is kind of cloudy.

MCN:Small operators have been very outspoken over the years on a lot of regulatory issues. Could consolidation change that?

MP: It remains to be seen what impact consolidation will have on our segment of the industry. I do see some strategic combinations of our members that help to provide maybe better operational control within a particular area. It really remains to be seen whether some of the large interests have any interest in acquiring our members.

The truth of it is, I don’t care who you are, Mediacom, Cable One, WideOpenWest, that’s still really small. Even if you combine some of the larger smaller ops, you’re still tiny compared to Charter and AT&T and Comcast. If there is any consolidation, I tend to think we’ll still be fighting for the same issues.

MCN:One issue that small operators have been especially vocal about over the years has been forced bundling by programmers. Now that larger operators have taken up the skinny-bundle mantle, do you think we’ll see some traction there soon?

MP: I do. We’ve always comically but also seriously at the ACA called ourselves the canary in the coal mine. What has happened is whether it is retransmission consent or problems of cable programming choice or lack thereof, or other issues, is that larger MVPDs have gravitated toward us as they have seen in their own companies with much greater scale the need for relief and reform.

As those companies bring their greater influence to bear, it complements what we at ACA have been doing for years quite well because we compare and contrast on the same track to say the market has changed; the regulations that were once needed aren’t needed anymore with the dynamic, changing marketplace; and that government should release the straps of regulation and let the market decide.