Mark Your Calendars … in Pencil

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission has narrowed the target window for new Internetneutrality rules, but the timing is not yet a done deal.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler last week confirmed that he plans to circulate an order next month (Feb. 5), with plans to vote at the Feb. 26 meeting.

Whether or not that vote happens as scheduled depends on whether Wheeler can line up the three votes required to approve his proposal, and perhaps on how he handles circulating the decision.

“The devil is in the details,” a cable executive said. “He could circulate something and then it blows up because he did not think about the PR side as well as the political side.”

Internet-service providers continue attempts to convince the chairman and the other commissioners that reclassifying Internet access as a telecommunications service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, even with forbearance and even as a hybrid approach along with Section 706 authority, is an innovation-killer that will guarantee lengthy court challenges.

Whatever the chairman comes up with is likely to be challenged in court, anyway, but Wheeler has been under increasing pressure from congressional Democrats, various net-neutrality advocacy groups and President Obama to classify ISPs under Title II, which telco Verizon Communications — the only company to sue the FCC over the former rules — has said would be illegal.

Many of those arguments are tied to the belief that Title II reclassification will prevent paid priority, though Title II’s opponents argue that is not the case.

In the wake of reports of the February target date, CTIA: The Wireless Association blogged that the FCC is barred by statute from applying common-carrier regulations to mobile broadband.

The majority of the old network-neutrality rules did not apply to mobile, but Wheeler has signaled that with the rise of mobile Internet access, it is time to revisit that decision.

ACA, Dish Want to See Program Pacts

WASHINGTON — The American Cable Association and Dish Network teamed up last week to tell a federal court it should allow third parties to see programming documents related to the proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable and AT&T-DirecTV mergers.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has stayed the FCC’s decision to make the documents available pending the court’s ruling on an underlying challenge to a Federal Communications Commission decision, lodged by programmers including CBS, The Walt Disney Co., 21st Century Fox, Scripps Networks Interactive, Time Warner Inc. (a separate company from Time Warner Cable) and Viacom. Those programmers have said the FCC is trying to make too much sensitive business information available to too many parties without sufficient protections.

In an intervenors’ brief to the court last week in support of the FCC, ACA — a trade group representing small, independently owned cable operators — and satellite-TV provider Dish said that those programmers had depicted a “surreal world where the ordinary need for review of programming documents in a media merger proceeding has somehow become unprecedented, and the extraordinary protections that the FCC has already afforded petitioners have correspondingly become insufficient.”

They said the programmers’ central argument that the document production is unprecedented is bogus. “Carriage agreements and similarly sensitive documents have routinely been requested, and provided, in major media merger reviews, “ ACA and Dish said in the filing. Those merger reviews include Comcast’s acquisition of NBCUniversal in 2011 and Comcast and Time Warner Cable’s joint acquisition of Adelphia Communications in 2006.

In fact, ACA and Dish said, if anything is out of the ordinary, it is the level of protection that the FCC has afforded those documents, including not allowing remote access to them.

“Petitioners claim that the FCC should read the VPCI documents without the benefit of any third-party review, and then rely on their contents when reaching a decision on the proposed mergers. That has never happened, and it cannot lawfully happen,” ACA and Dish said.

Ratcliffe Gets Key Cybersecurity Post

WASHINGTON — Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Cybersecurity Committee, has named fellow Texas Republican and new member John Ratcliffe to chair the Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies Subcommittee in the new Congress, which convened last week.

Ratcliffe, is a former U.S. attorney and mayor, and a conservative with Tea Party backing who won a primary challenge to Rep. Ralph Hall last May and went on to win the general election. He succeeds Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.).

As a U.S. Attorney in the George W. Bush administration, Ratcliffe was a member of the Attorney General’s Advisory Subcommittee on Terrorism and National Security, chief of anti-terrorism and national security for the Eastern District of Texas, and prosecuted cyber-crimes.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) continues as chairman of the Counterterrorism and Intelligence Subcommittee.

McCaul has signaled that cybersecurity and cyberterrorism will be a focus of the committee this session, particularly in the wake of last month’s hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment and the White House response.

“We must do more to ensure our nation is able to prevent, detect and respond to the growing cyber threat,” McCaul said following the FBI’s announcement it had traced last month’s hack of SPE employee information to North Korea.

The House Energy & Commerce Committee has also signaled it will hold a series of hearings on the threats posed to the economy by cyber-crimes.

FCC Opens Online Complaint Department

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission last week launched a new online consumer help center to make it easier for the public to file complaints against its licensees — such as broadcasters and cable operators — and others.

The move was billed as part of a broader effort to reform FCC process, but it is also in the wheelhouse of chairman Tom Wheeler’s pledge of a consumer-focused agency. The common cable issues in the TV portion of the site include “sports blackouts” and “loud commercials” — which gets its own category (there is also a “broadcast advertising” category) — as well as ones on indecency, closed-captioning and complaints about broadcast journalism. (The FCC has conceded it has narrow authority over news programs, confined primarily to cases of falsifying the news, though the site pointed out that the FCC “has stated publicly that ‘rigging or slanting the news is a most heinous act against the public interest.’”)

On the cable side, common issues include record retention, signal leakage, rate regulation, channel-carriage issues — retransmission- consent blackouts for one — and signal quality. Broadcast issues include a category for “sports blackouts.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.