FCC head opposes Obama bid to delay US shift to digital TV
AFP - Sunday, January 11
LAS VEGAS (AFP) - - The head of the US Federal Communication Commission on Saturday spoke out against president-elect Barack Obama's bid to delay the national shift to only digital television broadcasting.
"I'm concerned about the confusion that could be created," FCC chairman Kevin Martin said during an on-stage chat at a premier Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
"We spent a lot of time making sure everyone knows about February 17. What kind of message will that send if we are telling people that is the date and then we don't do it?"
Obama transition team co-chair John Podesta has written to key US lawmakers asking for an extension to the legislatively-mandated analog cutoff date, according to copy of the letter made available to AFP.
"Is this change we can believe in?" Consumer Electronics Association president Gary Shapiro said while interviewing Martin before an industry audience.
"Do you think it is a good idea for the government to come back and say 'We were only kidding?' I'm baffled."
Obama will take over from President George Bush on January 20.
Based on plans by the Bush administration, stations will cease their analog transmissions and broadcast only in digital form from February 17, requiring consumers who rely on over-the-air signals to install converter boxes.
Consumers are to be provided with 40-dollar coupons to defray costs of converters. Podesta said the program to distribute the coupons "has run out of funds."
"We have discovered major difficulties in the preparation for the February 17 conversion from analog to digital broadcasting," he said.
"These weaknesses mean major problems for consumers."
Martin countered that preparation for the shift has been extensive.
Television broadcasters are busy changing antennae equipment and doing other work to begin sending programming in digital instead of analogue format, according to the FCC chairman.
Companies that won rights to portions of the broadcasting spectrum in a multi-billion dollar auction are putting energy, resources and money into preparing to put the airwaves to use, he added.
Martin says Congress should stick with its original deadline and fix problems with a program that provides people coupons for discounts on converter boxes.
"I think Congress needs to act fast," Martin said.
"The program doesn't have enough resources. The problem with moving the date is we, the broadcasters, and you have spent a lot of time and energy to make this happen as planned."
Incoming presidents typically pick their own chairman from the FCC's five commissioners and Martin expects Obama to follow that tradition.
Martin's term as a commissioner, however, doesn't expire until 2011 and he said he has no plans to step down. An unabashed free-market Republican, Martin has chaired a bi-partisan FCC since 2004.
He listed among his regrets not making more progress in loosening the chokehold cable companies have put on delivering content to televisions.
While competition has improved telephone and Internet services in the United States while driving down costs to consumers, cable service prices consistently outpace inflation.
New generation technology on display at CES turns television sets into easy gateways to Internet content, but cable companies thwart that by mandating that customers use their hardware, which limits such activities, Martin said.
He also advocates using "white space," portions of broadcasting spectrum left empty between television channels as signal buffers, for wireless connections between "smart devices."
The US government should subsidize the broadband infrastructure to insure "universal" access to high-speed Internet connections, according to Martin.
"The Internet will impact almost every aspect of people's lives and people living in rural areas need to be just as connected as people in urban areas," Martin said.
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Obama transition team co-chair John Podesta (pictured in this file photo) has written to key US lawmakers asking for an extension to the legislatively-mandated analog cutoff date, according to copy of the letter made available to AFP.
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