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Federal regulators were all set to dive into the thorny issue of media ownership rules when a problem cropped up: They couldn’t agree on how to get started. The five-member Federal Communications Commission has only four spots filled, leaving an even division between Republicans and Democrats and the potential for stalemate along political lines. That’s what happened on the media ownership issue, which was shelved. That illustrates one challenge new chairman Kevin Martin faces: trying to set his regulatory agenda with only one other GOP ally on the commission. Few believe the FCC will get a fifth member — and Martin another Republican ally — before the fall, leaving the possibility that contentious issues like media ownership will remain stalled until then. “More and more the problem is that nominations at the FCC are not a high priority and they’re likely to get pushed even lower by nomination politics at the Supreme Court,” said Rudy Baca, a former FCC official who is an analyst for the Precursor Group, an independent research firm. The current vacancy was created by the elevation of Martin from commissioner to FCC chairman to replace Republican Michael Powell, who left the agency in the spring after four years in the top post. The agency has acted on several matters since the March vacancy — requiring Internet phone companies to connect customers to 911 services, fast-tracking the date for bigger TV sets to have digital tuners and approving Alltel Corp.’s $4.4 billion acquisition of Western Wireless Corp. But none was particularly controversial. Even with the open seat, some analysts don’t see a slowdown in FCC business. “I think Kevin (Martin) is spending his first few months doing what a new chairman ought to do, which is to focus very heavily on personnel and make sure you have a team that you’re comfortable with,” said Blair Levin, another former FCC official who is now an analyst with the Legg Mason investment firm. “Once you have that, everything else moves reasonably well,” Levin added. “If you don’t have that, everything is a train wreck.” Among the issues the FCC is considering are questions about technologies affecting the lives of millions of consumers every day — phones, Internet, television and radio. The FCC, for now, has delayed questions about whether to relax ownership restrictions for television and radio. But it is considering ownership limits for the cable industry. It also is mulling regulatory questions involving newer technologies such as Internet-based phone calls, or Voice over Internet Protocol. And it’s studying whether to lift a ban on the use of cell phones on commercial jetliners. Several big phone mergers are awaiting approval — the $35 billion Sprint-Nextel deal; SBC’s $16 billion acquisition of AT&T Corp. and Verizon’s $6.7 billion takeover of MCI. While larger issues related to media ownership may be bogged down until another commissioner is seated, public interest groups expect the mergers eventually will get clearance. “I think we’re really talking much more about what kind of conditions you might see put on them,” said Gene Kimmelman, senior policy director at Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. “It really depends on whether Martin, unlike his predecessor, will be inclined to work together with the Democrats and work out some reasonable compromises.” Meanwhile, some names have been mentioned for the open seat, including White House aide Michael Meece; Deborah Taylor Tate, a director on the Tennessee Regulatory Authority; Michael Gallagher, an assistant secretary at the Commerce Department and Richard Russell, associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. White House spokesman Trent Duffy declined to comment on any names under consideration or when a nomination might be sent to the Senate. The Bush administration also will have another seat to fill. The term of Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy, the other Republican on the panel, expired last year and she is not seeking renomination. She can remain in the post until the end of this year, but has indicated she’d like to leave sooner than that. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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