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FCC’s Martin Backs Broadband, Digital TV Transition

Making broadband services more accessible to consumers, supporting the transition of TV broadcasting from analog to digital and getting cable operators to follow through in accepting a standard box-free connection to digital TVs are all on the high-priority list at the Federal Communications Committee (FCC) this year, according to agency chairman Kevin Martin, who recently won Senate confirmation for his second term in that post.

Appearing here at International CES yesterday in a one-on-one Industry Insider session with the Consumer Electronics Association’s president/CEO Gary Shapiro, Martin said that while studies show that there have been “dramatic increases” in the use of broadband communications services by minorities and low- and middle-income households,” the FCC’s goal is to ensure “everybody has access to an affordable broadband connection.” As time passes, broadband will continue to “impact the way people are going to entertain themselves,” get medical assistance and how children will be educated.

The FCC, he said, must create rules that encourage competition that allows companies to invest in a variety of broadband delivery technologies, including telephone lines, powerlines, cable and wireless. That last one, he indicated, will be facilitated after the TV transition to analog and the FCC can auction off portions of the VHF spectrum. But he pointed out federal regulations covering those providers are all different, and the government needs to “level that playing field” to encourage competition.

The transition of TV to digital “is certainly slower than we hoped, but it is taking off more significantly now that we have a hard deadline from Congress,” Martin said. “It’s really here, and as a result we not only see increased innovation in terms of traditional video, but it also presents the opportunity for new services such as mobile video,” as being demonstrated on the floor of CES. Government “will continue to have a role in the transition,” in regulations for set-top converter boxes and in helping make consumers aware of what it will mean to them, to “get them to recognize the opportunities to not just watch the box.”

As to the cable-TV compatibility issue, “it’s important for innovations” and to help cable operators comply, instead of adopting one single standard the FCC separated out the security function. “It is important to make it possible to buy a TV set, plug in the cable and have it work.” While the FCC does have some waiver requests to consider and “we have to be sympathetic to the needs of some of the smaller cable operators,” the time has come “for us to try to move forward,” on that issue and on two-way services as well.

Martin pointed out that “when phone companies were required to have a single standard” for device connections, it led to a whole series of equipment innovations. “Before that, you had to rent your phone from the phone company.” Now, Martin said, you can buy a phone device, plug it in and it works, and cable customers should have the same option with their TV.

Asked how the FCC might view a possible satellite radio merger of XM and Sirius, Martin said it would probably look at it the same way they did when DirecTV and EchoStar considered merging. The merger was rejected, not because of any limit on TV entertainment, but because it would reduce non-broadcast competition from three choices to just two. He implied that with all the new video delivery options now available the FCC might take a different view.