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Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin indicated Friday that the agency still has work to do on its long-delayed overhaul of a rule governing cable company mergers. “We’re still working on it,” Martin said in a brief interview after the commission’s first formally scheduled meeting with him presiding as chairman. “At this point, the commission may have to gather some additional information as well.” The rule in question would limit the reach of cable companies. After a challenge by Time Warner Inc. and other media groups, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 2001 overturned an FCC rule limiting ownership by any one company of cable assets that reach more than 30 percent of U.S. subscribers. The agency began revising the cap in September 2001 but has yet to produce a new rule. Industry observers expect the agency ultimately to set the cap at 40 percent of U.S. subscribers. Martin declined to comment on how much longer the agency would take to promulgate a new rule. An influential consumer advocacy group, Washington-based Media Access Project, is threatening to sue the FCC if it signs off on a proposal by Comcast Corp. and Time Warner to acquire Adelphia Communications Corp. before the agency finalizes the rule. They plan to submit the deal for FCC review this month. Martin also declined to comment on whether Media Access’ threat of legal action might speed the agency’s work on the rule. Deborah Lathen, FCC cable services bureau chief from 1998 to 2001, said Martin is likely to be interested in gathering more data on cable and satellite TV subscribers so he can have a stronger feel for the competitive pay-TV landscape. “There are more satellite TV subscribers, and Martin will factor that in,” said Lathen, who is now president of Lathen Consulting LLC, a Washington-based research firm. But regulatory analysts said the commission already has enough data about cable and satellite TV subscribers to produce a new cable ownership rule. They say Martin could be delaying the new rule because he worries about the political firestorm it might produce. The agency’s attempt to loosen rules on media company mergers in June 2003 drew sharp criticism from consumer groups and some business associations, who claimed it would allow excessive concentration of ownership and hinder diversity of programming. A federal appeals court in Philadelphia later barred the revision from taking effect and ordered the FCC to reconsider it. “Martin wants to delay new cable ownership limits as long as he can,” a regulatory lawyer said. Another factor delaying the new rule is the unsettled composition of the FCC itself. Martin became FCC chairman in March, reducing the number of commissioners to a deadlocked two Republicans and two Democrats, rather than the normal 3-2 split. As now constituted, the commission is likely to deadlock over the controversial cable ownership rule. FCC observers are uncertain how long it will take to find a new Republican commissioner to fill the regular seat Martin vacated. Adding to the confusion, Republican Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy is expected to step down soon. Copyright �2005 TDD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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