Hard decisions haven't slowed FCC Chairman Kevin Martin

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin will probably be remembered as one of the most controversial FCC chiefs in history.

And that's just fine by him.

To be effective, "You have to be willing to make hard decisions," Martin says, reflecting on his guiding philosophy. "You have to … try to find the right answer, even if that means, at times, that every industry is unhappy. In the end, it is not about them. It is about the consumer."

Martin will preside over his last FCC meeting as chairman Thursday. His successor is expected to be Julius Genachowski, the top tech guru of President-elect Barack Obama, according to a source close to the Obama transition team who declined to be identified before Obama makes the announcement official.

When Martin steps down — probably by month's end — he'll leave behind a legacy that will be felt for years, predicts Paul Glenchur, a public policy analyst at Stanford Group in Washington.

"He did a good job of laying the foundation for technological innovation" for the USA, Glenchur says. "He had a real willingness to pursue what he believed in aggressively, even if it ruffled feathers."

Under Martin, the FCC adopted a crush of rules aimed at promoting broadband deployment. He also pushed, prodded and, at times, enraged cable TV, broadcasters, Internet start-ups and rural phone companies.

Martin, a Republican appointed by Bush in 2005, is unusual in that he has a decidedly pro-consumer agenda, says Gene Kimmelman of Consumers Union. "He was a pleasant surprise."

Martin "consistently supported competition throughout his tenure," agrees Jim Cicconi, executive vice president at AT&T. "That wasn't always popular" with the dominant communications companies, including AT&T. "But he has done great things for consumers."

Martin says that while his stances frustrated some companies, or even whole industries, "that's just part of the nature of being a regulator.

"When you are deciding controversial issues, nobody remembers when you were with them," he says. "They only remember when you are against them."

Fight over open networks

Martin's biggest fights, by far, were with incumbents.

In 2007, Martin started pushing wireless carriers to let their customers use any mobile device, not just the ones sold or subsidized by the wireless provider. Carriers balked, saying consumers didn't need, or want, "open networks."

Martin refused to yield and soon added an "open network" requirement as a condition to purchasing a big block of wireless spectrum that was about to be sold. Carriers grumbled but ponied up a record $20 billion to buy spectrum anyway.

Since then, wireless carriers have become champions of open networks. Meantime, they're quietly suing the FCC, claiming the agency lacks legal authority to impose such a requirement.

Martin also caused a stink with his stance on "white spaces," industry lingo for dormant wireless airwaves that abut broadcast TV spectrum. White space was set up as a buffer zone decades ago.

In 2005, Martin hatched a plan to make the spectrum available, free of charge, to anybody who wanted to provide hot-spot-style broadband. Broadcasters went nuts, claiming white-space devices would interfere with TV signals.

Martin held his ground for more than three years. The measure was finally adopted last fall.

"If you're not controversial, you're not doing your job" as FCC chairman, says Reed Hundt, FCC chairman during the Clinton administration.

Battleground: Cable

Nowhere is Martin's doggedness more apparent than in cable.

Cable was largely deregulated by Congress in 1992, leaving the FCC with little authority. Martin says that's no reason to turn a blind eye to the plight of U.S. consumers, who have seen their monthly cable TV rates more than double over the past decade.

"The extraordinary increase in cable rates … is the biggest single problem consumers are facing today," he says, underscoring his passion for the subject.

Under Martin, the FCC adopted a crush of rules aimed at stimulating competition with cable operators in hopes of reducing cable bills. The FCC chief also chided operators for not offering "à la carte" as a programming option.

At the request of cable company Cablevision, Martin recently launched an investigation of "tying" — the practice where big programmers routinely require cable operators to buy a suite of channels even though they may only want one, such as ESPN.

Tying is one reason expanded basic cable TV service keeps getting more expensive.

Charles Dolan, founder and chairman of Cablevision, which also owns Madison Square Garden and professional sports teams, says he admires Martin's willingness "to take on industry moguls" like that.

"He's not in there to do anybody's bidding," Dolan says. "He's in there to do what's right for the agency and the public, and he's very bold about it."

Depending on the outcome of the tying probe — if the incoming FCC chief decides to pursue it — new rules could be adopted to make it easier for cable operators to offer à la carte programming. At least that's what Martin is hoping.

Asked for words of advice for his successor, Martin quickly circles back to where he started.

"As a regulator, you can't protect individual companies or industries," he says. "It's not about who wins. It's about coming up with the right idea for consumers."