* Ruling could spark consolidation
* Court called FCC rule arbitrary and capricious
* Comcast, Cablevision shares higher (Adds stock prices; McDowell and Media Access Project comment)
WASHINGTON - A U.S. court on Friday struck down a rule limiting a cable company to no more than 30 percent of the subscription television market, a victory for companies like Comcast Corp (CMCSA.O) that could spark a wave of consolidation in the industry.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the Federal Communications Commission's rule, adopted in late 2007, was arbitrary and capricious and vacated it. The regulation was first set in 1993, but has been repeatedly challenged.
Comcast stock was trading 11 cents higher, or less than 1 percent, at $15.66 per share on Nasdaq, while Cablevision Corp (CVC.N) shares were up 72 cents, or 3.3 percent, to $22.50 on the New York Stock Exchange.
The commission has failed to demonstrate that allowing a cable operator to serve more than 30 percent of all cable subscribers would threaten to reduce either competition or diversity in programming, the court said.
The judges pointed to rising competition among video providers, including satellite companies like DirecTV Group Inc (DTV.O) as well as telephone companies like AT&T Inc (T.N) and Verizon Communications Inc (VZ.N), which have been rolling out their own subscription television services.
Cable operators, therefore, no longer have the bottleneck power over programming that concerned the Congress in 1992. the court said.
Telephone and cable providers over the last few years have been jumping into each other's business lines so they can offer subscribers a package of television and communications services -- a bundle that can help boost their profits.
The latest ruling, which could spark a round of mergers among companies that provide subscription TV services, presents a major challenge for the new FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, a Democrat, who will now have to decide whether to appeal to the Supreme Court, try to start from scratch, or abandon the regulation altogether.
FCC spokeswoman Jen Howard declined to comment.
The ruling came one day after the full slate of FCC commissioners voted unanimously to launch an inquiry to examine the state of competition in the U.S. wireless industry, a step that could lead to probes of other sectors including cable and broadband.
Media Access Project, a public interest group, expressed disappointment with the ruling and vowed to fight the cable industry's anti-competitive ownership structure that has raised prices and limited choices for consumers.
This is not the end of the fight, MAP President Andrew Jay Schwartzman said.
FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, a Republican who voted against FCC decision to impose a cap, said the agency's case was vulnerable.
It was clear in December 2007...that the effort to re-justify the very same cap that the D.C. Circuit first struck down in 2001 was even more vulnerable to court challenge the second time around, McDowell said.
The case is: Comcast Corporation, National Cable & Telecommunications Association et al v Federal Communications Commission and USA, CCTV Center for Media & Democracy et al, No. 08-1114. (Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky, John Poirier; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Leslie Gevirtz)