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FCC chair to face heat on Hill over merger

/ Source: The Associated Press

The Republican-majority Federal Communications Commission is getting its first taste of what life will be like under a Democratic-controlled Congress.

On Thursday, the five commissioners are to appear before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. And on Feb. 15, they will appear before a House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet.

The House hearing is shaping up to be the most combative.

On Wednesday, Democratic Reps. John Dingell and Ed Markey released a letter detailing a number of questions they have for the commissioners, including several regarding what they see as commission Chairman Kevin Martin's apparent lack of will to enforce a series of conditions that allowed AT&T Inc.'s $86 billion takeover of BellSouth Corp.

Dingell of Michigan is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Markey, of Massachusetts, is chairman of that panel's Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, which is hosting the hearing.

After lengthy negotiations between AT&T lawyers and the commission's two Democrats, the company agreed to a set of conditions that cleared the way for a 4-0 vote approving the merger on Dec. 29. Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell did not vote because he had been a lobbyist for a group that opposed the merger.

Martin and fellow Republican Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate issued a joint statement at the time that said some of the conditions were "discriminatory and run contrary to commission policy and precedent."

Dingell and Markey took issue with their contention that conditions "cannot be accomplished by AT&T alone" and that if commission action is required to enact them "as a policy going forward, we specifically do not support those aspects of the conditions and will oppose such policies."

Dingell and Markey questioned how the merger could be considered legal if the two commissioners did not agree with the settlement.

Their letter also asks, "What is your authority to vote to approve an order and then refuse to implement it?"

FCC spokesman David Fiske said the commissioners would respond by the Feb. 7 due date set by Dingell and Markey.

Thursday's hearing before the Senate committee is expected to be wide-ranging. Issues to be covered may include media ownership, broadband policy, the AT&T merger, network neutrality, violent content on television and universal service.