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Editorial: Failure at the FCC

Playing favorites

Chairman Kevin Martin's heavy-handed rule is ending.
Chairman Kevin Martin's heavy-handed rule is ending.Read moreKEVIN WOLF / Associated Press

Kevin Martin's reign of terror as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission can't end soon enough.

Martin has abused his position of power to go after cable companies while treating telecommunications firms with kid gloves. While cable giants like Comcast Corp. are far from perfect, such uneven treatment makes it appear that Martin has other motives beyond the best interest of consumers.

A congressional report released last week, titled "Deception and Distrust: The Federal Communications Commission under Chairman Kevin J. Martin," found that Martin demoted employees who disagreed with him and that his heavy-handed management style created distrust within the agency.

The bipartisan report by the House subcommittee on oversight also found Martin "manipulated, withheld, or suppressed data, reports and information."

In one instance, the FCC issued a report in 2006 that found that a-la-carte programming could be good for consumers. That reversed the findings of a 2004 FCC report released before Martin arrived.

Martin supports a-la-carte programming, while the cable industry opposes it. Under a-la-carte programming, cable customers could pick which channels they want rather than pay a flat rate for a bundle of stations.

At first blush, the idea sounds like a good one that could give customers more choice and allow for lower bills. But in reality the logistics of customizing every subscriber's cable package and bill would likely drive up prices. At the same time, many of the smaller niche channels would disappear for lack of subscriber interest, resulting in fewer choices.

Martin also pushed through an FCC rule that caps a cable operator's overall market share at 30 percent. But at the same time, the FCC doesn't limit the growth of satellite-TV providers, or the number of voice customers at AT&T or Verizon. Why the difference?

The cap, in particular, limits Comcast's growth, since its market share is about 27 percent. Comcast is challenging the rule, which was previously thrown out by the courts in 2001.

It's easy to beat up on Comcast, which often gets poor marks for customer satisfaction. And we're all in favor of better service, more competition, and lower cable bills. But Martin's arbitrary decision-making seems to target one industry, when the goal should be to create an even and competitive playing field.

The latest congressional report comes on the heels of a dubious award given to Martin in October. The Citizens Against Government Waste named Martin its "Porker of the Month" for using $355,000 in FCC funds to sponsor a NASCAR driver from his home state.

Martin didn't tell the other commissioners of the expense, which seems like a waste of money. Given Martin's track record and the latest congressional report, President-elect Barack Obama should move fast, once in office, to replace Martin.