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Bush’s controversial FCC chief loses power already

The Kevin Martin era at the Federal Communications Commission has ended quietly even before the Obama administration takes over.

The Kevin Martin era at the Federal Communications Commission has ended quietly even before the Obama administration takes over.

The Bush appointee and bane of Comcast Corp. canceled tomorrow's meeting of the FCC after top Democrats in the House and the Senate told Martin in a letter Friday that he should scale back his priorities.

Martin, the letter said, should focus the FCC on the digital, over-the-air TV transition, which is set for Feb. 17. No new FCC meeting has been scheduled, a commission spokesman said today.

President-elect Barack Obama is expected to name an interim chairman of the independent agency that regulates telephone, cable and other communications companies when he takes office in January. That interim position is likely to be filled by Democrat FCC Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein or Michael Copps.

Martin could remain as a commissioner, but without the agenda-setting powers as chairman.

The letter from Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Rep. Henry Waxman of California added to Martin's recent political troubles.

On Dec. 9, the Democrat-controlled House Commerce Commitee released a scathing investigative report that accused Martin of abusing his power and politicizing the regulatory agency.

Among other points, the investigative report says that Martin suppressed a congressionally mandated report on competition in the nation's cable and satellite-TV businesses.

The FCC rejected that characterization, saying that Martin was waiting for a ruling from another federal agency before making it public.

But the Office of Management and Budget confirmed to The Inquirer that Martin had not taken the steps required to publish the so-called video-competition report that, some believe, could embarrass Martin.

A former top official in Bush's 2000 campaign, Martin was praised by social conservatives who would like to scrub smut and lewd language from cable TV. Consumer advocates say Martin's attacks on cable rates were overdue. Left-leaning groups who demanded "net neutrality" - or an Internet free of corporate manipulations - found him receptive to their ideas.

But critics said Martin micromanaged the agency and centralized bureaucratic power. The cable industry said he punished it for its refusal to tighten decency standards.

Martin secured a regulation that limits Comcast to 30 percent of the pay-TV market, despite an earlier court ruling that overturned an ownership cap. The cable trade association says its companies have appealed an unprecedented number of FCC decisions to the courts.

Just about everyone agrees that the FCC needs change. "Change is needed, but it is not entirely because of things that Martin has done," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the nonprofit Media Access Project. "I do hope we will see improvements under the new FCC regime. More open meetings. No delay in issuing reports and orders. And more public notice about meetings with industry."

James Gattuso, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said the agency really needed to reevaluate its mission. It was formed to regulate the broadcast and telephone monopolies, but both of those industries now face substantial competition.

Martin's actions at the FCC seemed personal reactions to industries or issues, rather than overarching intellectual views of telecommunications and media, Gattuso said.

"I don't think anyone can speak meaningfully of a Martin legacy," Gattuso said. "I don't see anyone taking up the Martin agenda because there really isn't one."

A lingering controversey is the annual video-competition report, which is required by a 1984 federal law. The FCC has not released one since March 2006.

Last year, Martin tried to use the video-competition report to secure new regulations on the cable industry.

New regulations could be enacted on the cable business if cable TV is available to 70 percent of the nation's households, and cable companies sell TV services to 70 percent of homes with access to pay-TV services.

Martin asserted in late 2007 that the cable industry crossed this 70/70 threshold, and would back up his claim in the unpublished video-competition report.

Cable companies and other FCC commissioners challenged the conclusion, saying that Martin plucked information that supported his contention from a private company, Warren Communications, and ignored other FCC and private data.

Cable companies said their market positions were weakening, not growing more powerful, because of competition - a fact that seems borne out.

DirecTV recently told Wall Street analysts that cable companies lost 897,000 subscribers since early 2006.

DirecTV, Verizon Communications Inc., and other cable competitors added 6.4 million subscribers over that period.

Martin, who lost his bid for greater regulatory authority, said he believed that the Warren Communications data were accurate. But to satisfy the concerns of other FCC commissioners, he said the FCC would gather information from the cable companies.

Martin has not asked cable companies for information and still has not released the report. It could prove awkward to Martin if the new information revealed that the Warren Communications data overstated cable's market position, experts say.

Martin is awaiting a decision from the Office of Management and Budget as to whether the additional information gathering from the cable companies would violate a Clinton-era law that seeks to reduce federal paperwork burdens, FCC spokesmen said this week.

The OMB had no pending request for a ruling on the Paperwork Reduction Act from the FCC on the issue, according to its Web site yesterday. By law, the agency has to act within 60 days on a request, an OMB spokeswoman said.

FCC spokesman Robert Kenny later clarified the FCC's position, saying "the process was under way to make the request" to the OMB. "The chairman has been pushing to move this forward for several months," Kenny said yesterday.

It now appears it could be weeks or months before the video-competition report, which was expected to be released in early 2007, is finalized.

House Democrats said in their investigation that Martin had "abdicated his responsibilities to Congress, the public and industry" by withholding the report.

Schwartzman of the Media Access Project said the unpublished report "sets a record for delays."