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Editorial | FCC Proposal to Cap Growth

Big Step Backward

Anyone lucky enough to find a computer, flat-screen TV or fancy phone under the Christmas tree this year will discover soon that there's robust competition among firms wanting to hook up the new toys.

Nothing could sap the holiday spirit more, in fact, than draconian government intervention in ways that might change a landscape where consumers have a growing number of choices.

So it's puzzling that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering an old-school approach to limiting cable providers in signing up new customers.

In a proposal that could come up for an FCC vote next week, Philadelphia-based Comcast Corp.'s growth would be capped at nearly 3 million more homes - about 10 percent more than its current subscriber base.

This region would not be making merry after the economic fallout of hampering so important a high-tech employer as Comcast. The FCC move could alter the competitive landscape as noticeably as Comcast's new headquarters is changing Center City's skyline - and not to consumers' advantage.

The chief proponent of the limits, FCC Chairman Kenneth Martin, hasn't made a convincing case that cable's share of the market has reached the threshold for such regulation set by Congress two decades ago.

Moreover, the limits on cable would be out of step with other recent regulatory trends, such as permitting a mega phone merger.

Across this region and the nation, the major phone, cable and satellite companies offer more choices than ever for voice, video and Internet access. For that, credit goes to technological advances such as fiber optics.

But the competition for consumers' dollars is due, as well, to the fact that government over the last dozen years has stepped back from regulation.

When New Jersey threw open the state to video delivery over phone lines, it challenged the cable companies' hold on TV customers. The same held true when satellite companies won the legal right to transmit local broadcast channels. When the kinks were ironed out of Internet-based phone service, it created a vast new market for cable providers. That's all good.

Are prices for these services where consumers might hope? Of course not - just check your cable bill. But there are savings to be had, plus competitive variations in service and equipment. What's more, offerings such as broadband Internet and video-on-demand are products not widely available as recently as a decade ago.

A go-slow approach at the FCC might not be Martin's agenda, but it should be. (There also should be no rush to remove proven limits on owning TV stations and newspapers in one market.) As for capping the growth of cable providers, that's not the best course to benefit consumers right now.