Two recent decisions show a stark divide in the approach of the Democratic and Republican FCC Commissioners which may indicate the difficulty of reaching consensus on any of the pressing issues which will be facing the FCC in this new year. The FCC decision on the AT&T acquisition of BellSouth, approved by FCC action on Friday, was a result of AT&T throwing in the towel, surrendering to the demands of the two Democratic Commissioners who were seeking greater consumer protections before voting to approve the acquisition. In that case, as one of the Republican Commissioners had removed himself from consideration of the matter due to a conflict from a previous job, the Democrats had an effective veto over any FCC decision.
In the decision reached right before Christmas, requiring local municipalities to act quickly on new video franchise applications and restricting the conditions that could be put on such approvals, the Commissioners again split on party lines. The three Republicans argued that the restrictions were necessary to encourage the entry of new competition in the multi-channel video world, resulting in the potential of lower prices to consumers. Democrats, on the other hand, contended that the rules were beyond the FCC’s power. Beyond what some might see as the role reversal represented by the votes (the Republicans looking out for consumer interests while the Democrats were protecting states rights, with Commissioner Adelstein even quoting Ronald Reagan in his dissent), one wonders why these positions broke down on party line. If the proposal really did exceed the Commission’s power, shouldn’t Republicans and Democrats alike refrain from acting? And if the result of this action was really a benefit to consumers, shouldn’t Commissioners of both parties have looked for ways that the rules could be adopted within legal bounds?
The seeming inability of the Commissioners to reach consensus on most big issues does not bode well for prompt action on some of the major broadcast issues facing the FCC. We’ve already seen a decision on adopting final standards on digital radio (including authorizing nighttime digital operations for AM stations) postponed for over 6 months, reportedly based on arguments over the public service obligations of multicast channels. And how will the contentious multiple ownership debate be resolved? And what will happen should one of the Republican Commissioners leave the Commission during the course of the year? It certainly will be interesting to see these issues play out during the course of this new year.