FCC's flurry of activity on Election day has pluses and minuses for consumers

by Bob Williams, Hear Us Now

There were some huge votes and non-votes at the Federal Communications Commission on Election Day this past Tuesday, all of which could have major implications for consumers.

In a meeting scheduled for some inexplicable reason on the day Americans headed to the polls, the commission packed the agenda with a whole host of controversial proposals in an apparent attempt to get them done before the election results began flowing in Tuesday night.

With one exception, the FCC approved all of the big proposals FCC Chairman Kevin Martin had put on the Election Day menu by the time the television networks began calling the earliest state contests Tuesday night.

Two of those proposals approved on Tuesday could hold long-term benefits for consumers.

The first will allow portable devices to use the airwaves between TV channels – commonly referred to as “white spaces” – for wireless broadband service. Backed by some odd allies including singer Dolly Parton and the National Football League, broadcasters were adamantly opposed to the proposal, saying it might interfere with their signals. But the proposal was backed by such technology heavyweights as Google, Microsoft, Dell and Hewlett-Packard.

Opening up those white spaces, which are located within one of the most sought after portions of the broadcast spectrum, could eventually lead to plethora of new communication devices and services.

Another merger approved by the FCC on Tuesday could also eventually result in some benefits for consumers.

It involved the merger of Clearwire and Sprint Nextel's Xohm unit. The companies, along with Intel, Google, Comcast, Time Warner and Bright House, agreed earlier this year to a partnership that proposes to create a nationwide broadband wireless network based on high-speed WiMax technology to compete with wireless leaders Verizon and AT&T.

It's hard to see how consumers will benefit from the other major item approved by the FCC on Election Day, however.

It was a controversial merger of Verizon Wireless and Alltel, a deal which will create the country's largest wireless phone company with more than 80 million customers. This kind of additional consolidation in a wireless phone industry that has already been reduced to just four big national players means there will be even less incentive for the remaining companies to compete aggressively against each other for consumer dollars.

To their credit, a bi-partisan block of four FCC commissioners banded together against a sweeping plan by Chairman Martin to overhaul the multi-billion dollar system phone companies employ to pay each other for use of their networks. Among other things, the Martin plan would likely have led to higher phone bills for both consumers and businesses. The biggest beneficiaries of the Martin plan were expected to be phone companies such as Verizon and AT&T, which had lobbied hard in favor of the plan.

FCC Opens Cable Investigation

The Federal Communications Commission has launched an investigation of cable companies and Verizon amid increasing complaints the firms are moving programming to a digital-only tier and charging consumers an extra fee each month for additional digital cable boxes in order to receive this programming.

Consumers Union, the sponsor of this blog, sent a letter to members of Congress about this two weeks ago. The FCC opened its investigation the following day, sending letters to the cable companies and Verizon requesting detailed information about pricing and the movement of programming from analog to digital tiers.

"The practice means consumers are left paying the same monthly rate for significantly less service, or must rent more expensive set-top boxes for each television set they own," says the CU letter. "With the DTV transition quickly approaching, consumer confusion in the television programming marketplace is at its peak. Cable operators appear to be leveraging content to strong-arm confused consumers into paying much more every month for cable programming they have previously received at no extra fee. We believe the timing of this rate hike is deceptive."

Today the National Cable Television Association sent a letter to members of Congress challenging the earlier letter from Consumers Union.

article originally published at http://www.hearusnow.org.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey