Martin draws line in sand at Powell’s FCC

Feb 24, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Bulletin to media industry lobbyists: If you want to defeat Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell, stop by and see Kevin Martin, one of his GOP colleagues.
Much to Mr. Powell’s chagrin, one of his pet deregulatory projects was derailed Thursday when Mr. Martin, with the help of the agency’s two Democrats, voted to uphold rules that force local phone companies to share their networks with rivals and give the states power to decide when to relax the rules.
And sources said such an affront could happen again.
“It was a stinging rebuke for Powell,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “He doesn’t have control of his own agency.”
The telephone industry deregulation in Mr. Martin’s gun sights had nothing to do with the media business. But media industry sources said the widening division among the agency’s Republicans could spill over to media industry issues, including the agency’s proceeding to ax or relax many of the FCC’s broadcast and cable ownership regulations.
At deadline, Mr. Powell was declining comment.
But Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., a longtime fan of big phone companies, blasted Mr. Martin as a “renegade Republican.”
“A palace coup led by Commissioner Kevin Martin has breathed new life into the dying era of government control over U.S. telecommunications policy,” Rep. Tauzin said.
In an interview Mr. Martin said, however, the telephone decision provided deregulation warranted by competitive forces.
“We did what was best for the American consumer,” Mr. Martin said.
Mr. Martin, a 36-year-old former White House staffer whose wife, Catherine, is a top adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, said he would decide media ownership issues the same way he did the phone issue: on substantive, not personality, grounds.
“I try to approach every issue on the merits of the issue before me,” Mr. Martin said.
Whatever his motivation, this is not the first time Mr. Martin has taken on the chairman, whose alleged imperial management style is said to turn off colleagues.
Behind the scenes, sources said that Mr. Martin has also fought a proposal by Mr. Powell to dismiss a long-pending affiliate request for the FCC to crack down on alleged network abuse.
In addition, over Mr. Powell’s opposition, Mr. Martin has signaled support for a broadcast industry initiative that would require cable operators that opt to carry a broadcaster’s DTV channel to carry all the free services that may be multiplexed there. The existing FCC rule requires operators to carry only the station’s primary DTV signal, which consists of the main free broadcast signal and related programming content.
“It does underscore that Martin is an independent thinker and is very unlikely to toe a party line,” said Harold Feld, associate director of the activist Media Access Project, of the phone industry decision.
At least some sources predicted that the FCC GOP divide has become so wide that the White House might intercede.
“I would think the administration wants [its] two young Turks [Mr. Powell and Mr. Martin] to agree on something of magnitude,” said one well-placed industry source.
Said another industry source: “Maybe it’s just two people of sound mind having a disagreement over policy. There are very few one-size-fits-all answers in the telecom business.”