FCC to Vote on Franchise Changes

Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin scheduled a Dec. 20 vote on his plan to force local governments to sign cable-service contracts with requesting phone companies within 90 days, according to a meeting agenda released by the agency Wednesday night.

Martin's plan puts him in direct conflict with cable operators and local governments, which argue that the FCC lacks authority to impose a shot clock on cable-franchising negotiations. The plan includes details related to the calculation of franchise fees that have also invited criticism from cable and the cities.

Martin scheduled the vote at the agency's public meeting next Wednesday. It would appear that he has a majority at the five-member agency because the FCC's pattern is to approve items docketed for a public vote. Republicans hold a 3-2 advantage over Democrats.

But sometimes majorities fail to materialize. In June, Martin called for a public vote on his plan to force cable to carry multiple digital signals of local TV stations, but he had to pull the item when Republican FCC member Robert McDowell refused to cast the deciding vote.

If the FCC adopts the franchising rules, cable operators and cities have indicated a willingness to fight Martin in federal court.

At the same meeting, the FCC is expected to unveil the results of its annual cable-price survey. The survey typically shows that cable rates have outpaced inflation by a few percentage points -- a finding cable critics use as ammunition to aver that consumers were gouged.

The FCC survey also typically finds that on a per-channel basis, inflation-adjusted cable rates have either remained flat or actually declined. Martin has said that per-channel comparisons are irrelevant because consumers can't buy cable programming on a per-channel basis.