CES 2008: Martin: No Give in DTV Hard Date

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Speaks at 2008 International Consumer Electronics Show

Las Vegas -- Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin said there is no chance that the nation’s shift to digital television will be delayed, regardless of questions and pleas from various industry executives.

“There’s no question that there’s a hard date,” Martin said during a question-and-answer session with Consumer Electronics Association president and CEO Gary Shapiro at the 2008 International Consumer Electronics Show here.

With more than 50% of American homes owning digital televisions, Martin said he was pleased with what the TV and consumer-electronics industries were doing to inform consumers, although he added, “We can do more.” He said the ad campaigns that are beginning to hit the airwaves are arriving at the right time. “You don’t want to be putting too much emphasis too early,” he added.

Martin said he expects the cable, broadcast and consumer-electronics industries to defuse the inevitable logistical problems that may arise prior to the transition. Some consumers have expressed concern, for example, that the DTV coupons, which have a three-month expiration date, might not allow enough time to choose a device, especially if retailers are sold out or have limited selections.

When asked about concerns over network neutrality, he said the FCC would act aggressively, using authority it already has to ensure that big distributors such as Comcast and other big cable operators play fair and give equal access to the Internet. “When blocking has occurred, the FCC has stepped in,” he added, and it will continue to investigate complaints in a more streamlined process.

Shapiro noted that Martin had taken a lot of “darts in the back” standing up for consumers with recent FCC rules that have hit the cable and other industries hard. “Any shield you can provide is good -- I’ll take it, Martin said.

One of those darts surely was thrown over the FCC chairman’s focus on giving cable-TV customers more choice through a la carte. Per-channel cable pricing would also allow consumers to pay for only the channels they want.

Echoing a criticism he has leveled in numerous venues, Martin said virtually every other industry had lowered prices from a few years ago, including wireless, long-distance calling and plain old telephone service. By contrast, he added, cable prices have doubled since the 1996 Telecommunications Act was passed. “It’s critical to recognize where there’s not enough competition … The easiest answer is to let the consumer pick and choose," he said.

The cable industry countered that while prices have gone up, so have the number of channels subscribers get for their money, adding that unbundling cable service may become a reality given the increasing control viewers are demanding over their media, but that decision is for the marketplace, not Washington, to make.