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NCTA's McSlarrow: Martin FCC Is Broken

National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow stopped short of saying Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin has it in for cable, but just barely, saying that the FCC was broken.

In a conference call with reporters, McSlarrow criticized both the process and the proposals of the FCC under Martin, saying that it had a habit of releasing or repressing studies depending on what outcome it was seeking. He said the process smacked of a political-action committee rather than a regulatory agency over a key economic sector.

Conceding his bias as the head of a trade association, he said he thought an objective outsider would agree that "the issues teed up for cable have been designed to hurt the industry."

Why? McSlarrow said he thought it all stemmed from a la carte. If the cable industry had agreed to adopt that voluntarily at the outset, he suspected, the litany of proposals might not have followed, "and I could have gone sailing."

It has been anything but smooth sailing for cable under Martin, he suggested, ticking off proposals for multichannel must-carry, inaction on integrated set-top waiver requests, program unbundling, leased access and more.

McSlarrow said the FCC was broken in two ways: an agenda that favors one industry over another -- he said the telcommunications companies have had it better under Martin than cable; and a process where rules are proposed through leaks to the press rather than official notices, where there is insufficient opportunity for public comment -- taking a page from critics of the media-ownership review -- and where reports are used to promote an agenda. He cited a Martin-backed report favoring a la carte that was issued to refute a previous report opposing it.

McSlarrow was repeatedly pressed on how off-track he considered Martin's chairmanship, refusing to call it an "abuse of power."

Asked whether he was ready to make it personal and declare Martin out for his industry, he said no, "but I'm also going to say that there is no question in my mind, and he has been very clear, that his primary agenda is the imposition of a la carte on the industry. The array of items that have either been brought before the commission or that have been proposed are designed to pressure the entire industry to reach a conclusion that the only way out is to implement some kind of a la carte system."

McSlarrow said that if the marketplace moves cable toward that model, fine, but as for Martin's route: "It's not going to happen."

FCC spokeswoman Mary Diamond responded to the critcisms in a statement late Wednesday: "Our focus is not on the welfare of a particular industry," she said, "but the welfare of consumers and ensuring they receive the benefits of competition in the form of lower prices, more choice and better services. 

"Consumers have not seen those benefits from cable. The average cost of cable has almost doubled from 1995 to 2005—increasing 93%–while the cost of other communication services fell. The cable industry needs more competition and we will continue to act to bring more competition and its benefits to consumers."