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FCCer Sees a 'Tsunami’

Federal Communications Commission member Jonathan Adelstein last week called for the creation of a digital-TV-conversion task force to head off a potential “tsunami of consumer complaints” when analog TV sets are rendered useless in February 2009.

Adelstein, via a recorded keynote address at The Independent Show, joined the crowd of officials who are fearfully warning that the public needs to be made aware of the implications of the move to digital-only broadcast signals come Feb. 17, 2009.

During his recorded remarks (see “Access,” page 23) and then answering questions live by phone, Adelstein said he believed that some are trying to use the digital conversion as a chance to strap cable companies with additional burdens, such as dual must-carry of a broadcaster’s analog and digital signals.

“I’m quite concerned that some of the proposals use the DTV transition as an opportunity to extract concessions from cable operators, or to impose certain carriage obligations,” he told the lunchtime audience.

Adelstein was also critical of the waivers of the integrated set-top ban that Verizon Communications has received. And he spoke out in support of extending, and possibly making even tougher, the program-access rules that are about to expire.

Regarding the digital transition, FCC Democrat Adelstein said there needs to be an effective outreach and educational effort, spearheaded by the commission and the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, with a unified message that broadcast, cable, satellite and the consumer-electronics industry all need to help deliver to the public.

“The FCC hasn’t done a very good job of making sure that message is coordinated,” Adelstein said. “But we need to get to you through this digital-television task force.”

Adelstein noted that just last Monday (July 30), the FCC released a proposal that cable operators include notice of the digital transition in their bill stuffers, and he suggested that they start including that message before the FCC formalizes that proposal.

During his remarks, Adelstein also said, “Perhaps cable operators should be allowed to convert digital signals into a format that can be transmitted and viewed by all subscribers.”

He later elaborated, saying, “The question is how do they get converted and what is being mandated here?”

Adelstein also questioned the waiver that Verizon received from the July 1 ban on the deployment of integrated set-top boxes.

“It’s unfortunate the way it came down,” he said. “It’s bizarre to me that the [FCC’s Media] Bureau — without commission approval — has been awarding all kinds of waivers. You have the strange situation that a company like Verizon — with half a million video subscribers — gets a waiver because they’re a new entrant [to the market], but these little tiny companies that are often members of [the] ACA [American Cable Association] have to pay, or their consumers, have to pay for this more-expensive box.”

Adelstein continued: “This is especially unfair and burdensome to smaller cable operators … At the end of the day, the FCC’s approach may lead to higher cable prices. And it doesn’t advance the digital transition in any meaningful way.”

Adelstein also chimed in regarding program-access rules, agreeing with the ACA’s position that the rules need to be extended. The rules sunset in October.

“It’s critical that we make sure that all of your companies have access to this critical material [programming],” Adelstein said “It is really critical for small cable companies, which are sometimes up against these [media] behemoths, in a difficult position to try to negotiate. I know the NCTC [National Cable Television Cooperative] does its best to try to help out along those lines, but you need to have strong program-access rules.”

Adelstein also lauded the ACA for completing a digital carriage deal with the Association of Public Television Stations, a pact that was announced earlier in the day on July 31.

Adelstein wasn’t able to deliver the keynote in person because the FCC was voting on the auction of spectrum in the 700-Megahertz band. The commission decided 4-1 to set bidding rules for that spectrum.

“I think we made progress,” Adelstein said.