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Martin: Don't Move DTV Date—Fix Coupon Program

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Postponing the Feb. 17 date for broadcasters to turn off their analog signals, which Congress is currently considering at the urging of President-elect Obama, will create more problems than it solves, said FCC Chairman Kevin Martin at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Saturday.

In a Q&A session with Consumer Electronics Association president and CEO Gary Shapiro, Martin said the shortage in funding for digital converter boxes was a problem that needed to be fixed quickly, and said he agreed with ongoing efforts to free up federal funds to distribute more vouchers to consumers under the NTIA's digital converter box program.  

"There are a variety of things that Congress can do to make coupons flow to consumers," said Martin, noting that options including freeing up more money by removing the Anti-Deficiency Act restriction or waiving the 90-day expiration date on coupons.

But after a multi-pronged effort to alert consumers to the Feb. 17 date, postponing it now will create consumer confusion and make it hard for the government to sound credible when it selects a new date in the future.

"The problem with moving the date is we've spent a lot of energy and resources trying to get people prepared for Feb. 17, broadcasters have spent a lot of energy, and you've [referring to the consumer electronic industry] spent a lot of energy," said Martin.

He added that a lot of the broadcast spectrum is being reclaimed for other uses, such as spectrum auctioned off during the 700 MHz auction, and that "other people are anxious to start building out their wireless networks."

Moving the Feb. 17 date out will disrupt the well-laid technical plans by broadcasters to turn off their analog signals on that date, said Martin, which has included scheduling engineering crews to take down old analog facilities and adjust their digital tower facilities to maximize power.

"Some of that is going to occur anyway, and that will create more consumer concern and confusion," he said.

Martin also noted that one of the findings from the early analog turnoff in Wilmington, N.C., was that some consumers who were aware of the Sept. 8 turnoff still called to complain that their service was terminated. Their reasoning, says Martin, was that they knew about the date but didn't actually believe that broadcasters would go through with it.

"The big concern is that whatever date we pick again people won't believe," said Martin. "And some of the potential structural problems from a broadcaster's standpoint, making sure they're up and going, that's going to be the same, whatever date you pick."

Martin had toured the CES show Saturday morning, and said he was particularly impressed with the ability to seamlessly bring Internet content to the TV that was demonstrated by software giant Microsoft as well as several TV set manufacturers. 

"One of the things that's exciting to see is that it's getting easier for consumers to buy a television and have a way to plug into the Internet and go to Amazon, or YouTube or Netflix and bring all that content to the TV," he said.

Martin appeared less impressed by tru2way, the cable industry's consumer brand for the OpenCable technology that both allows TV sets to receive premium cable programming without a digital set-top box and also provides a standardized software platform for interactive program applications. Martin said that while Microsoft's MediaPlayer software is able to seamlessly show "over-the-top" Internet video content on a TV alongside traditional cable programming, cable operators' tru2way guides do not.

"One of the concerns I have with tru2way in cable systems, in trying to have an implementation of the CableCard system, is the limitations they put on the innovation that can occur by integrating Internet content into that guide," said Martin, who has been a consistent critic of the cable industry's pricing for its video services. 

Martin declared that tru2way's limitations aren't due to technological issues, but "artificial limitations" that cable operators have placed on how their video subscribers use their broadband connection to access video content. 

"There are still limitations about people being able to use that broadband connection," said Martin. "That's why there's not really competition on the cable side, and why prices continue to escalate."