A U.S. District Court panel yesterday voted 2-1 to separate cable industry challenges to the new cable reregulation law, and to allow Judge Thomas Jackson to rule solely on the merits of the entire cable bill except for the constitutionality of “must-carry.”

The decision represented a setback for the cable industry, which had been urging the court’s three judges (Jackson, Stanley Sporkin and Stephen Williams) to consolidate the case and decide the matter quickly.

Under yesterday’s decision, it appears that cable challenges to most portions of the new law– including rate regulation and program access mandates–may not be decided until after the Federal Communications Commission finishes its time-consuming procedural implementation of the act.

A hearing will be held Friday by Jackson to determine the merits of a preliminary injunction filed by Time-Warner and the Discovery Channel to block the rate reg and access provisions of the law.

The three-judge panel will hold oral arguments March 4 on the constitutionality of both must-carry and retransmission consent. The former proviso requires cable operators to carry broadcast channels–a requirement that cablers claim violates their free speech rights–while retrans allows broadcasters to negotiate payment from cablers for the carriage of local broadcast signals.

It’s unclear after yesterday’s hearing whether Jackson alone or the three-judge panel will ultimately decide the fate of retransmission consent.

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