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Washington Was A Hub Of CE Activity In ’09

It may be simply because of the new administration and party in the White House that there seemed to be more activity than usual last year on the government relations front for the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), here and in state capitals nationwide.

Under the cloud of the most difficult economy in more than half a century, with a Congress and administration occupied intensely with the health care debate, activity revolved around longstanding issues — the digital TV transition, protection of consumer rights to fair use balanced with copyright holders’ interests, and consumer electronics’ impact on the environment.

The digital TV transition turned out to be the dog that didn’t bark. As a result of decades of hard work by folks in government and all the relevant industries, the “analog shutoff” went smoothly in June with very few glitches. Just as encouraging, several moves by the new administration indicate an understanding of the role technology plays increasingly in government’s operations and bode well for the technology industry.

Among these was the appointment of Aneesh Chopra, formerly the Secretary of Technology for Virginia, to serve as America’s Chief Technology Officer. According to President Obama, in this role Chopra will promote technological innovation to help achieve our most urgent priorities — from creating jobs and reducing health care costs to keeping our nation secure. He works closely with Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra, who is responsible for setting technology policy across the government, and using technology to improve security, ensure transparency, and lower costs. The goal, the president said, is to give all Americans a voice in their government and ensure that they know exactly how their money is being spent — and can hold officials accountable for the results.

The appointment of Julius Genachowski, a man with rich experience in both the private and public technology sectors, as Chairman of the FCC is another sign that the FCC will be working at its highest level with a deep knowledge base of the industries it regulates.

As we turn the calendar to a new year, perhaps no issue will be more important than spectrum allocation. The proliferation of “smartphones” (fully a quarter of all mobile phones sales are now in this category, and it’s expected to approach 50 percent in the next few years), the popularity of the many applications enabled by them, along with all the other wireless services, are putting a tremendous strain on the airwaves where these apps are transmitted.

“Spectrum, spectrum, spectrum,” responded Michael Petricone, CEA’s government affairs senior VP, when asked to name the critical issues facing the industry this year. “I think everybody agrees that we face a crisis,” Petricone said. “The increasing desire for all these wonderful smartphones and the services they can bring almost instantly to the palm of your hand is happening in a wireless landscape that was laid out as much as 30 years ago with much different and less ambitious expectations.”

Over the past several years, especially as the digital TV transition brought increased attention to the airways, there’s been a huge push to assess how spectrum is used by the private sector and government entities and how best to allocate it going forward. The FCC next month is scheduled to issue a status report and unveil a national broadband plan to reconsider spectrum allocation.

Last month CEA and CTIA-The Wireless Association asked the FCC to address the looming spectrum crisis by allocating more of the airways for wireless broadband. In a letter co-signed by more than 100 of America’s most innovative companies, collectively employing more than 1.1 million U.S. employees in 30 states with annual revenue of $625 billion, the associations noted: “Our nation’s ability to lead the world in innovation and technology is threatened by the lack of sufficient spectrum available for wireless broadband applications and services.

Environmental issues continue to surface with discarded devices and energy usage the primary concerns. The good news for environmentalists willing to listen is that the consumer electronics industry “gets it.” This is an industry that is producing new generations of products that are more energy-efficient than their predecessors and finding innovative ways to dispose of and recycle used products. CEA’s Web site is becoming a go-to place for information on where to recycle electronics and how to find energy-efficient new products.

Last year also saw the misguided approach by the California Energy Commission that in the name of energy efficiency will ban the sale of selected flat-screen TVs beginning in 2011. Petricone said CEA was “disappointed” by the CEC’s decision and pointed out that there are hundreds of televisions that meet Energy Star standards and that CEA continues to push the concept of national energy standards rather than state-by-state regulations that make it extremely difficult for companies to build products to sell nationwide. The CEC seemed to have decided to make the new regulations based on outdated research and by largely disregarding input from TV makers and CEA that proposed actions that would actually have saved more energy than the arbitrary rules adopted by the CEC. Some folks have asked, “What’s the harm?” since the vast majority of TVs already adhere to the proposed guidelines and that by 2011 when the rules are scheduled to take effect, even more will. Perhaps, but there is real harm in the wasted time, money and resources going into this effort in a time of deep economic recession, the potential for lost jobs and tax dollars and the potential that such regulations will stifle innovative new products.

The new administration has said that this will be the most fact-based FCC ever in the way it makes its rulings, which would be a welcome development given the continuing efforts on the part of some content providers to limit consumers’ abilities to use electronic devices as they wish. The specter reared its disturbing head again this year with a new effort on the part of the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) to implement so-called “selectable output controls” (SOC), which allows content providers to shut off the video stream to any TV that is receiving content over a connection not favored by the provider. It’s aimed primarily at the roughly 25 million HDTV sets already in homes that contain analog connections.

The MPAA was unsuccessful in its attempts to make its case in Congress and is instead using an obscure procedural mechanism to ask the FCC for authority to use SOC to shut off TVs they deem unworthy. If they are successful, viewers will only be able to watch movies when, where and how Hollywood says. This is a slippery slope indeed. If the FCC grants Hollywood the power to turn off analog inputs, what’s to stop them from asking to disable other features or functions? This comes despite the generally undisputed fact that piracy through analog outputs is virtually non-existent. Most piracy occurs before movies come to home video, within studios or in theaters the “old-fashioned way” via concealed camcorders.

Another issue that continues to draw comment and controversy at state and national levels is distracted driving. There’s no doubt that the popularity of text messaging has raised the dangers to a new level. Safety is a primary consideration when CE manufacturers design in-car electronics devices and there are many companies working on lots of new technologies to enhance the driving experience. In-car devices can enhance safety on the road but no product can substitute for clear driver focus and safe driving.

CEA recently updated its Web site to promote in-car technologies that help keep passengers entertained and safe.

These and other issues will be explored at CES and at other CEA-sponsored meetings and conferences throughout the coming year. All revolve around the touchstone of the consumer electronics industry, the driving force that has made it central to all our lives: innovation.

In that light, CEA this year launched “The Innovation Movement,” an engaged community of CEA members, technology professionals, and other Americans who realize innovation is the key to America’s global leadership. Members of The Innovation Movement will be given information on how to make their voices heard on legislation that may impact the CE industry and harm innovation. They’ll also receive special action alerts if their congressional representatives are involved in legislation that may benefit or harm innovation.