It has been no secret that lots of folks question how Kevin Martin‘s FCC is being run, and how decisions are made. Indeed, other Commissioners have raised the issue in public meetings, articles have been written in most major newspapers, and now Congress’ Great Inquisitor, John Dingell, has decided to find out.
Dingell, the head of the House Committee overseeing the FCC, is renowned for his thorough investigations. A first round of questions and preliminary interviews has resulted in a second inquiry going out looking at how decisions were made in a host of proceedings, including the cable a la carte studies and the so-called “70/70” imbroglio that resulted in other Commissioners charging the Chairman publicly with suppressing data and attempting to manipulate conclusions.
Significantly, the letter inquiry, which is supposed to be responded to in two weeks, (don’t hold your breath) asked for “all e-mail communication, memoranda, electronic and handwritten notes, records of telephone conversations, talking points, and meeting schedules.” Dingell had already warned the Commission against destroying any information.
I’ve written about all of this before, including the apparent sacking of the dean of cable policy and regulation, Bill Johnson, when, during the a la carte flip-flop, he apparently questioned the factual underpinning of the Chairman’s position. (See Cfax, 10/05/06 “Standing Ovation”).
But there are much larger issues here. It’s not only the question of a very “focused” Chairman, intent of getting what he wants done. It’s also about the shredding of the very process of the Commission, and the overall policy goals of both Republicans and Democrats. While shredding machines may have been silenced by the new Congressional investigation, the shredding of policy whirs on.
Consider this; the Commission and Congress have long sought to tame cable prices. This, they say, is in the public interest. But the FCC then imposed the CableCARD requirements. No benefit for the public, and no perceivable change in competitive offerings of the consumer electronics industry, but a massive increase in cost for cable that will be borne by customers.
All policy makers and commentators favor a more rapid rollout of broadband services. There is great concern that we are “falling behind” other countries and that a “digital divide” is widening. So what does the FCC under Kevin Martin propose: increase the fees for cable broadband attachments to telephone poles! That will almost guarantee a slowdown or complete stoppage of broadband development in rural areas, where the most poles are used. Who will get the money? The rural co-ops, already the beneficiaries of government low interest money and very flush with cash. Broadband customers will have to foot that bill too.
And then, of course, there is dual or maybe “triple-must carry.” The cable industry is expected (with our customer’s money, of course) to subsidize the delivery of digital television signals to our customers rather than require the broadcasters, who, after all, have been given free spectrum, to make sure that spectrum is useable by all viewers. Once again, there is a shredding of the policy consensus that says there should be diversity, low cost delivery and increasing broadband availability. The select few are enriched. Cable and our customers are forced to pay the bill.
Hopefully this investigation will look in to that shredding too.