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Congressman Dingell Accuses FCC of Overstepping Authority

The chairman of a congressional panel that oversees the Federal Communications Commission accused the agency of overstepping its authority in approving an order meant to create more competition in cable television.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who heads the House Commerce Committee said at a subcommittee meeting Wednesday that "the FCC is not a legislative body — that role resides here in this room with the people's elected representatives."

Dingell said he supports competition and lower prices in cable, but that "the commission must work entirely within the existing laws to achieve that goal." He added: "That did not happen and the commission chose to ignore the well-settled divisions of responsibility."

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who pushed through the new video franchising rules, appeared before a Commerce subcommittee along with his four fellow commissioners. Martin has in the past defended the FCC order, saying the law allows the agency to step in when it determines that local communities have erected unreasonable barriers for competing cable companies to enter the market.

A bitterly divided commission voted 3-2 on Dec. 20 to require local governments to speed up the approval process for new cable competitors, cap the fees paid by new entrants and ease requirements that competitors build systems that reach every home.

Opponents of the FCC's action have promised to appeal the decision and say the rules amount to a "federalization" of the cable franchising process. They contend the change will mean a loss of local oversight, fewer dollars for public and government access channels and the possibility of "cherry picking" by companies that choose to serve only the richest neighborhoods.

Supporters of the policy change have cited dozens of instances in which local governments have made unreasonable demands of new competitors, effectively blocking them from offering service.

Wednesday's hearing was the first appearance by all the commissioners in front of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet in several years, a fact that Dingell noted, saying the FCC has not had "an appropriate level of congressional oversight" and that has led to some "unwelcome consequences."

The panel questioned the agency on a wide range of issues, including rural access to broadband services, enforcement of conditions applied to the AT&T Inc.-BellSouth Corp. merger and a backlog of complaints on the "do not call" phone registry. Commissioners were also asked what progress was being made on upgrading emergency communications.

Another topic was the tentative, $12.5 million settlement among four radio broadcasters over charges of payola, or accepting money or items of value to play certain songs on the radio. Martin promised the investigation is not over, and that the agency will be looking at other broadcasters.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., the subcommittee's chairman, asked why the agency has not investigated allegations that the National Security Agency had acquired private phone records of citizens from telephone companies.

Martin said the agency was prevented from investigating due to national security concerns.