In the nine months since he became chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Kevin Martin has pushed through decisions that...
WASHINGTON — In the nine months since he became chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Kevin Martin has pushed through decisions that have made the country’s largest phone companies even bigger and, in the view of critics, made it harder for smaller companies to compete with them.
On three major mergers and a string of regulatory decisions, he has persuaded a divided FCC to vote unanimously, testimony to political skills that observers say far outstrip those of his predecessor, Michael Powell.
Over the next year, Martin’s negotiating abilities will be put to the test as he tries to advance a deregulatory agenda and grapples with nettlesome issues such as how to rewrite media-ownership rules and how to shore up the government program that subsidizes phone service in rural and poor regions.
There is also persistent speculation that the former college student-body president may run for office.
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During a recent interview, Martin, 39, discussed his policy initiatives but demurred when asked if he had political ambitions.
Asked if he might want to serve a second term as FCC chairman, he said: “I am hoping to survive my current term.”
In part, Martin’s ability to win Democratic votes at the commission has been a virtue born of necessity. He leads a commission split between two Republicans and two Democrats, with one empty seat. To get anything done, he has had to make compromises.
Martin said he would continue to try to win as many votes as possible for every decision, even when a third Republican joins the commission and gives him a working majority.
“Trying to address the concerns or perspectives of the other commissioners in all of our orders makes our decisions stronger,” Martin said. “That’s how I approach all of our decision-making and will continue to do that.”
Michael Copps, one of the FCC’s two Democratic commissioners, said it is easy to work with Martin.
“I like Kevin Martin as a friend and I trust him as a colleague,” Copps said. “We don’t always agree, but we know how to find common ground and get things done.”
Martin would not break new ground on many of the hot telecommunications and media issues.
He said he was pleased that major cable companies plan to offer packages of family-friendly programming but said it was unclear whether “consumers are going to be able to see that as an alternative that they will be able to subscribe to.”
Some analysts wonder if the packages — which are being rolled out by both Time Warner Cable and Comcast — will be so pared down that they attract few subscribers.
Martin also provided more details on the results of a revised FCC study, saying that allowing cable customers to buy channels individually rather than in packages could in many cases lower cable prices. For digital subscribers, costs could drop by about 2 percent.
Martin said it was too early to write “net neutrality” rules to prevent cable and phone companies from limiting the ability of customers to go to Web sites of their choice. But he said, “I would be concerned about network providers impeding” access to the Web.
He resisted the idea policies on his watch have led to greater industry consolidation, saying some mergers that were completed this year were proposed before he became chairman March 18.
Among its major actions in 2005, the FCC:
• Approved SBC Communications’ purchase of AT&T, Verizon Communications’ acquisition of MCI and Sprint Corp.’s merger with Nextel Communications.
• Required Voice over Internet Protocol providers to give customers enhanced 911 service.
• Dropped requirements that local phone companies must lease their high-speed DSL lines to Internet service providers at reduced rates.
The latter, some consumer groups say, could be the death knell for small Internet service providers. But Martin said it would spur investment in broadband networks and that wireless and power companies will provide more choices over time.
Some critics say the cost of building such networks is so high that competition will not emerge soon.
“Hinging a regulatory policy on the idea that there’s going to be numerous competitors in a marketplace with their own facilities … it’s a great vision to have, but I think the emperor’s wearing no clothes in this case,” said Earl Comstock, president of the CompTel trade group that represents smaller telecom firms and wanted more conditions placed on the mergers.
Martin’s background, including a stint as deputy general counsel to the Bush campaign in 1999 and 2000 and his time as student-body president at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has fueled some of the speculation that he might run for office.
Pressed on what he might do when he leaves the FCC and whether he harbors political ambitions, he replied: “I really haven’t figured out what I am going to end up doing later on.”