* Order to help AT&T, Verizon access NY sports games
* Could force Cablevision to allow access to MSG games
* FCC chair says order is a step toward competition
(Adds Cablevision comments, details on complaint process)
By John Poirier
WASHINGTON, Jan 20 U.S. regulators handed phone
and satellite companies a victory in the pay television market
by preventing cable operators from blocking access to some
Verizon Communications Inc (VZ.N), AT&T Inc (T.N) and
satellite providers DirecTV DTV.O and DISH Network Corp
(DISH.O) have complained they have been denied access to sports
programming in some lucrative markets by incumbent cable
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted 4-1 on
Wednesday to establish a formal process to apply for sports
programming and for cable operators to appeal. Republican
commissioner Robert McDowell voted against the rule.
"Today's action represents a major step toward realizing
the promise of a competitive marketplace for video services,"
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said at an open FCC meeting.
"The bottom line is that viewers should not be unfairly
forced to choose between the sports teams they love and the
provider they prefer," he said.
The issue of competitors' ability to access programming is
likely to be a key issue when the FCC reviews the proposed
joint venture between Comcast Corp (CMCSA.O) and General
Electric Co's (GE.N) NBC Universal.
Verizon and AT&T want to carry games by the New York Knicks
basketball team and the New York Rangers, New York Islanders
and New Jersey Devils ice hockey teams carried by the Madison
Square Garden (MSG) network.
In August, AT&T filed a complaint with the FCC alleging
anti-competitive practices against Cablevision Systems Corp
CVC.N, which owns MSG, the Knicks and the Rangers.
Bethpage, New York-based Cablevision said it is pleased
that the FCC added a complaint process that allows incumbent
cable operators to present their case and appeal a decision.
"Verizon and AT&T do not need a regulatory bailout in order
to compete," the company said in a statement.
AT&T's senior vice president for federal regulatory
affairs, Bob Quinn, said in a statement that the FCC action
means "consumers will have more choices."
AT&T provides its customers in Connecticut with standard MSG
programming, but was not able to access high-definition
programming. AT&T also complained that Cox Communications
[COXC.UL] was blocking access to carry San Diego Padres
Public interest groups, including Public Knowledge, lauded
the FCC move but urged the agency to adopt new rules to give
video providers such as Netflix Inc (NFLX.O) and Amazon.com Inc
(AMZN.O) access to cable programming.
"We hope the commission will take a similar view to
allowing and encouraging competition in the developing world of
Internet-delivered programming," Public Knowledge President
Gigi Sohn said in a statement.
Under the new FCC process, competitors seeking to carry
regional sports programs shown by an incumbent cable provider
must first go through a complaint process and show how they are
being harmed before the FCC issues a decision.
Verizon and AT&T will not have to refile their complaints
but can supplement them.
After a complaint is filed, the cable company has 45 days
to respond and the complainant has 15 days to reply before the
full FCC or its Media Bureau issues a decision.
If a decision rules in favor of a complainant, the cable
company can appeal a bureau decision to the commission and a
commission decision to a federal court.
(Reporting by John Poirier; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Tim