Cable sparks debate

WASHINGTON – The nation’s chief telecommunications regulator stands accused of misrepresenting the facts while pushing through rules that will make it easier for big phone companies to get into cable television.

The policy change won approval by the Federal Communications Commission on a 3-2 vote Dec. 20. That angered local government officials who claim the agency overstepped its authority and now promise a legal challenge. The vote also drew the threat of a “legislative fix” from a powerful congressman.

The new rules are meant to spur more competition for cable television providers. They require local governments to speed up the approval process for new competitors, cap the fees paid by new entrants and ease requirements that competitors build systems that reach every home.

Consumer groups long have complained about rising cable rates and poor service, blaming the problems on a lack of competition.

But opponents of the FCC’s action say the new rules amount to a “federalization” of the cable franchising process. They contend the change will mean a loss of local oversight, fewer dollars for public and government access channels and the possibility of “cherry picking” by companies that choose to serve only the richest neighborhoods.

Supporters of the policy change have cited dozens of instances in which local governments have made unreasonable demands of new competitors, effectively blocking them from offering service.

It was one of those claims that raised the ire of David L. Smith, the city attorney in Tampa, Fla. He said the FCC chairman, Kevin Martin, made a “blatantly inaccurate allegation” about Tampa’s conduct during franchise negotiations with Verizon Communications Inc.

Martin was quizzing an agency employee during a commission meeting before casting his vote when he asked: “Is Verizon still required to film the tutoring classes for the math classes in Tampa, Florida in order to get a franchise?”

Rosemary Harold, a deputy chief in the FCC’s Media Bureau, answered, “Yes, Mr. Chairman.”

Harold was put on the spot earlier by commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, who voted against the FCC proposal. Adelstein asked Harold to cite “specific communities” that are “particularly having a problem right now” in gaining a franchise.

Smith, who negotiated with Verizon in Tampa, says Martin’s allegation neither was in nor a condition of the franchise agreement. Martin’s characterization, the lawyer said, was “complete and abject fiction.”

Smith also said the FCC had never contacted him about the claim.

In an interview Friday, Martin said he probably should not have used the word “still” but largely stood by his argument _ that Tampa was making an unreasonable demand of Verizon. He said he had not responded to Smith’s letter, but would do so.

“These are difficult issues,” he said. “I think the commission is trying to find a balance between protecting the local communities’ interest but also making sure they are not effectively pre-empting the ability (of new companies) to get in and compete.”

The dispute raises a larger question about whether the agency should investigate specific allegations made by companies that stand to benefit from rules or simply assume that they are true.

Adelstein, a Democrat, accused his agency of failing to “conduct any independent fact-finding” and said the FCC did not “attempt to verify the allegations made by parties who have a vested interest in the outcome of this proceeding.”