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Judge In Comcast, NFL Network Case Retiring

Washington -- The Federal Communications Commission judge in charge of the NFL Network's access complaint against Comcast has decided to retire in early January, FCC records show.

Judge Arthur Steinberg is resigning effective Jan. 3, but chief administrative law judge Richard Sippel is taking over the Comcast-NFLN dispute, as well as several others, immediately.

".... Steinberg is retiring on January 3, 2009 after 42-years of outstanding service," Sippel wrote in a Nov. 24 order.

The announcement came less than a week after Steinberg made important rulings in favor of Comcast that pushed back against FCC chairman Kevin Martin's apparent attempt to tilt the dispute in the NFL Network's direction.

Among other things, Steinberg refused to rule within 60 days as Martin's Media Bureau chief Monica Desai had demanded, and he also tossed out Desai's initial facts and conclusions that Comcast had discriminated against the NFL-owned channel. Steinberg said he would hear the case anew, untained by prior rulings by FCC staff.

Steinberg's evident support for Comcast could change the complexion of the dispute because Sippel's attitude toward Steinberg's rulings was unknown. Sippel was to meet with Comcast and NFL attorneys Tuesday afternoon to establish discovery and procedural dates. 

"We look forward to meeting with him and presenting our complaint," NFL Network said in a statement.

The NFL Network, owned by the league, is seen by about 2 million Comcast subscribers, who generally pay extra to view the channel. The network has gone to court and to the FCC to force Comcast to deliver the channel to the 70% of subscribers who have digital service. Comcast has about 24 million video customers.

Sippel is taking over similar cases involving WealthTV against Time Warner Cable, Bright House Networks, Cox Communications, and Comcast; and Mid-Atlantic Sports Network against Comcast. MASN is the pay-TV home of Major League Baseball's Baltimore Orioles and the Washington Nationals.