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Diligence On Trade Policy, DTV Transition Needed In ’09

This year there’s an extra frisson to the quadrennial buzz surrounding the coming of a new administration to the nation’s capital. The President-elect has promised change, and the voters for president and for Congress embraced the notion.

When the difficult economic situation came to a boil in the weeks prior to the election, an added sense of urgency for positive change emerged. For the tech industry, the election of Barack Obama, the first truly “wired” candidate whose campaign leveraged technological innovations like none before, brings promise and challenges.

The new president and Congress will be addressing issues that the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) has been working on throughout previous administrations with some key successes and several notable frustrations in the year just past. Several issues will continue to dominate the agenda including trade, the greening of electronics, broadband access and the DTV transition. At the same time, the struggle to maintain consumer’s rights to fair use of the new generation of digital devices while not infringing on copyright holders’ rights requires eternal vigilance.

Perhaps no issue is more important to the CEA, in its role as a U.S. representative of the global consumer electronics industry, than that of an open and fair trading system worldwide. There has been a bill enabling free trade with Colombia awaiting a vote in Congress for nearly two years that’s reported to have strong bi-partisan support. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has declined to bring it to the house for a vote amid suggestions that the Speaker has been asked by union supporters not to bring it to a vote.

This past year, CEA took to the road with a 28 state bus tour promoting free trade. The tour kicked off in early summer in New York City with Mayor Bloomberg, CEA president Gary Shapiro and J&R Music & Computer World CEO Rachelle Friedman, then continued across the nation with stops at U.S.-based manufacturing companies where executives extolled the benefits of free trade to American companies and workers alike. “Trade isn’t just vital to our companies and our industry,” Shapiro said kicking off the tour, “it is essential to preserving America’s prosperity and way of life.”

Shapiro also pointed out that trade creates millions of American jobs and provides billions of dollars to our economy. “When America competes in the global marketplace, our nation’s economy and workers win,” he said.

According to CEA, the consumer electronics industry was projected to generate $1.4 trillion in direct business activity last year and directly employ more than 4.4 million Americans with one in seven of those jobs directly tied to overseas trade.

CEA has called on Congress to pursue a pro-growth trade policy with aggressive pursuit of bilateral trade agreements including those with Colombia, Panama and Korea that have been pending. CEA also has urged congress to reauthorize trade-promotion authority, eliminate non-tariff barriers and to uphold and enforce existing trade agreements.

In November, Democrats strengthened their majority in the House and approached a near filibuster-proof number in the Senate, which may mean passage of some legislation that many members of the tech industry oppose. Some 80 percent of CEA’s more than 2,000 member companies are small businesses with sales of $30 million or less for which open and free trade is crucial to business growth and job creation.

Another worry for many small and midsize companies — in the tech realm and out — is the so-called “Employee Free Choice Act” that was passed in the House in 2007 but stalled in the Senate. This bill, which is also referred to as “card check” legislation, would allow workers to unionize by signing a card openly rather than through the traditional secret ballot. This is seen by many as an effort by unions which have seen membership dwindle in recent years, to add new members. Opponents point out that the secret ballot is part of the fabric of our democracy and that such a law would force unionization and perhaps an untenable burden on small non-union companies.

The transition to digital television has reached a crescendo in recent months as the end of analog broadcasts for full-power TV stations arrives next month. CEA has been working with other involved associations including the National Association of Broadcasters, the Association for Maximum Service Television and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association along with government entities including, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is managing the coupon program that provides $40 discounts to ease the transition for consumers who rely on over-the-air broadcasts. CEA executives and spokesmen have taken part in hundreds of consumer education sessions including a series along with representatives of the Federal Communications Commission in Wilmington, N.C., where an early analog cutoff trial run took place in September. Lessons from that experience have been incorporated into education efforts in the subsequent months.

CEA is also working in individual states and in the nation’s capital on green issues, surely key to the tech industry’s future success. In that light, CEA released in October the first industry-wide CE environmental sustainability report.

This independently produced study highlighted specific environmental accomplishments in the industry including a decrease of as much as 25 percent in electricity consumption of CE products, a relative reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and a strong commitment to recycling.

But there is a great deal of room for improvement in the tech industry for both energy efficiency and recycling. While CEA is committed to market-driven solutions rather than government mandates, there should be a national policy regarding the issue of electronic waste rather than a patchwork of state regulations. And while there have been tremendous improvements in recent years in energy efficiency of CE products —for instance, replacing millions of CRT computer monitors and TVs with vastly more efficient LCD panels — the industry remains dedicated to the design, production and marketing of energy efficient products at competitive prices.

CEA’s Web site provides a central industry resource that lets consumers locate electronics recycling centers in their areas.

The Obama campaign’s embrace of technology gives hope that the new administration will continue to recognize the positive power that innovation can bring to the country’s competitive posture. This means ensuring that intellectual property laws do not restrict manufacturers’ ability to innovate, or the consumer’s ability to buy devices that make the most of the content they own.

CEA has long been on the record opposing piracy and supporting the intellectual property rights of copyright holders. However, basic home recording and piracy should not be confused and copyright laws must be balanced to ensure that copyright holders’ rights are protected while not unduly stifling innovation.

To further the cause, CEA has been instrumental in organizing the Digital Freedom Campaign which uses social networking and other efforts to educate the public about the need for freedom to fairly use technology in the digital age. Digital Freedom is designed to protect the rights of artists, innovators and consumers to use digital technology however they choose free of unreasonable government restrictions.

There was an important advancement in the increasing the availability of high-speed Internet access last fall when the House and Senate passed the “Broadband Data Improvement Act of 2008.” This legislation should bring the country a step closer to ensuring that all Americans have access to high-speed Internet, which will in turn spur innovation in new device. There was a promising signal from the new administration when Secretary of Commerce designate Richardson mentioned broadband as an important issue in his first remarks.

There are many issues in mobile electronics with concerns and regulations (many in state capitals) regarding distracted driving and issues related to installation and repair in of in-vehicle electronics. CEA has been encouraging continued research, public education campaigns that treat driver distraction comprehensively, and enforcement of existing laws.

As in other product areas CEA continues to work for legislation and regulations that give all Americans the right to choose which new technologies are used in their vehicles and the right to choose who installs these products.

As always, greater consumer choice and competition will drive more innovative products and lower prices, benefiting all Americans.