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Obama Knocks at FCC Door

Nov 16, 2008  •  Post A Comment

The sun is starting to set on the administration of Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin.
President-elect Barack Obama last week named Susan Crawford, a University of Michigan professor of communications law, and Ken Werbach, a Wharton School assistant professor and former counsel for new technology policy at the FCC during the Clinton administration, to head a transition team examining FCC issues. The team will look at agency policies and personnel.
With President-elect Obama’s transition team expected to knock on the FCC’s door this week to begin the transition process, it’s beginning to look like there may be no additional votes on major TV issues before Mr. Martin gets replaced.
The FCC hasn’t yet set its January meeting date, but if it falls late in the month the commission’s Dec. 18 gathering could be Mr. Martin’s last as chairman of the current commission. Even if the FCC schedules an early January meeting—a tentative date of Jan. 15 has been discussed—no major action is expected on TV issues.
In recent years the FCC’s January meeting customarily has been used to hear reports from various FCC bureaus—not for significant votes.
Action is even less likely this January. Unless Congress suddenly acts to confirm Republican Deborah Taylor Tate, Ms. Tate’s recess appointment to the FCC will expire before any January meeting. That would leave the FCC with two Democratic and two Republican commissioners, leaving one seat open for an appointment by President-elect Obama.
Final Issues
An aide to Mr. Martin said last week that the chairman still hopes to take action on some issues. The FCC could yet resolve debates about public safety departments’ use of broadcast airwaves, and compensation of local phone service carriers for providing lifeline universal phone service. It also may take some steps to provide lifeline broadband service.
The FCC may continue to take more action on the DTV transition if events warrant. The FCC already has moved to give broadcasters more leeway to establish satellite transmitters and has indicated it stands ready to make further changes if transition problems surface.
John Podesta, co-chair of the president-elect’s transition office, last week told TelevisionWeek that the upcoming digital TV changeover had heightened the importance of the FCC transition to the Obama team.
“We are focused on [the digital changeover],” he said, adding that the president-elect hopes to have staff ready to start working at the FCC immediately after Mr. Obama takes office.
DTV Switch
Mr. Podesta declined to say whether concerns about the quick timetable for the digital switchover—it happens Feb. 17, just 29 days after Mr. Obama’s inauguration—will prompt the new president to seek immediate confirmation of a new FCC chairman.
Media companies and cable providers still are fearful that Mr. Martin will make one last attempt to further regulate cable. One limit discussed would prevent media companies from insisting cable providers buy a bundle of channels to get a sought-after channel.
Another would force cable providers to air channels they don’t want to air—either competing sports channels or digital multicast signals. Mr. Martin is unlikely to have the votes to achieve either of those, say several sources.

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