Q&A With FCC Chairman Kevin Martin

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin does not see much chance of tightening program-access complaint rules or getting his free broadband proposal out the door before he exits as chairman in mid-January.

He is more sanguine about the prospects for the digital-television transition, though he concedes there will be challenges, including possibly running out of available money for DTV-to-analog converter boxes.

President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team has reportedly pushed for a more concentrated and coordinated call center program to field viewers’ calls around the time of the Feb. 17, 2009, switch. Martin says broadcasters will need to step up—NAB already has announced a call center plan—but that funds they have requested from the FCC would be subject to government contracting rules.

Martin talked about that and more with B&C Washington Bureau Chief John Eggerton. Below is a portion of the chairman's "exit interview," which will appear in full in the January 5, 2009, issue of Broadcasting & Cable.

Rep. Bart Stupak said last month that the FCC needed to get much more aggressive in its approach to the DTV transition. "I just fear that come the middle of February, when we flip that switch to digital television, there are going to be a lot of fuzzy sets out there and our phones are going to erupt." Is he right?

I think everyone involved is concerned about doing all we can to make sure that consumers are both aware of the upcoming transition and doing everything we can to make sure they are taking steps to be prepared for it.

What still needs to be done on the FCC's end to make sure the transition goes as smoothly as possible?

The commission has spent a lot of time making sure the broadcasters were adequately prepared. There are 1,800 commercial broadcasters, and our latest estimate is that there is only one broadcaster [Martin did not say which] that is not making the transition from analog to digital. The next, most important is making sure consumers are aware of the transition.

When we were having hearings on this a year ago, one of the biggest concerns that we were hearing was that the commission and the industry weren’t going to be doing enough to educate consumers. There are educational requirements for broadcasters, cell phone companies, and cable operators. I think the consumer awareness has increased dramatically over the last year and continues to increase.

The most recent NTIA [National Telecommunications & Information Administration] numbers this week [Dec. 19] said that three-quarters of over-the-air households had applied for coupons. So, we’ve seen a significant number of people not only aware but taking steps to make themselves prepared.

But that being said, any kind of transition that is going to impact millions of households and millions of viewers is going to involve both a significant amount of consumer education and working with consumers to try to address their concerns. And there are going to be some challenges.

Is one of those challenges the possibility of running out of money for DTV-to-analog converter boxes?

In general, yes. Some of the stories about the increasing numbers of people who applied, I think, are indications that those trends could end up meaning that there are people who are applying for converter boxes in January whose applications could either be rejected or delayed while they are waiting to see if they get money back from people who don’t use them.

You recently got a letter from Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) with a lot of questions about the status of the DTV transition, including whether Congress should lift the cap on the funding. Should it?

In the past, I have always said that I support Congress giving as much money to the coupon program as possible so that everyone who wants to get a coupon will be able to use it to purchase an analog-to-digital converter box should be able to. So, yes, I think we need to make sure that there isn’t an artificial barrier to people being able to use the coupon program.

Does the FCC have enough money for the government call centers that will be needed to field viewer questions when the plug is pulled on analog?

We have an important role to play in having the call center and working with consumers after the transition, but the industry does as well. If they step up with programs like ones they have proposed, then I think we do. But that is with the assumption the industries are going to shoulder a part of that burden.

So, you applaud the National Association of Broadcasters’ (NAB) announcement that they plan to create a national call center?

Yes. I had a meeting with NAB and the state broadcast associations, which asked for some funding from us. We talked about the fact that everyone has certain proposals on what they want to do on call centers and how do we first get the industry all coordinated and focused on a uniform proposal, and how we plug into that. We have to make sure we are working together, including on the challenges of the call center.

You said state broadcasters are asking for some FCC money for their call center. Will they get it?

We have some money, but there are strict rules on the government process that I can’t comment on until the contracts are awarded.

What happened to the Dec. 18 meeting, which you canceled?  I heard that there were enough votes to approve the two DTV items on the agenda, which are items Congress had instructed the FCC to concentrate on.

There were two DTV items. One was the television translator item proposal [which was voted on last week]. Even when it was on the agenda for the 18th, I was telling them we should try to go forward as soon as we can.

On the DTV enforcement NAL’s [proposed fines], some of the offices had concerns about that, and so it wasn’t clear there were votes on that item.

I was told that at least one commissioner’s office thought the items were not on circulation and couldn’t be voted yet.

No, that is not true. This is really important because people try to claim this all the time. I have put them in the system so they can be voted on circulation. When I told people about them three weeks before the meeting, I put them in the system so they could be voted.

Another item that was supposed to the on the Dec. 18 agenda was an order that would make it easier to file program-access complaints, and a proposal to prevent cable and broadcast programmers from making channel or tier placement a condition in program carriage deals with cable and satellite operators. What are the prospects for that item?

For the January meeting, I think they are dim.

I think the real question is: If that is not what people are willing to do, what is going to be the answer to make sure we address the problems the independent operators are having—and consumers are having—as a result of the way the process works? You have independent operators coming forward saying they are being forced to purchase programming and put in on certain tiers whether consumers want it or not. And you have consumers who have complained about increasingly high cable rates.

Why didn’t you separate out the item: vote for the complaint rules part of the order and table the more controversial proposal?

I would have been willing to do that. We had a majority of staff meetings with all the offices and we were not able to get a majority [of the other commissioners] to agree to that.

Don’t FCC rules require you to hold a December public meeting?

I think we have to at some point get together. We can do it by phone. Since we are not doing any agenda items, we’ll put out some kind of notice saying there can be some kind of 1-800 number people can call in [that meeting has since been scheduled for Dec. 30].  We’ll say “this is the official meeting. All right, that’s it, there is no agenda so, the meeting’s over.”

In a letter to you about that Dec. 18 agenda, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) advised you to stick to DTV items and items with statutory deadlines? Will you try to do anything substantive for your last meeting in January?

I think that the current environment with the letter telling us to focus on DTV has made the other commissioners very hesitant about doing anything substantively on other, non-DTV issues. But I think that if there are other issues, we could try to address them, or if there are updated DTV issues. The [DTV] nightlight legislation has a statutory deadline of Jan. 15 as the day we have to adopt the order, so that would be a logical day to be adopting that order.

Speaking of statutory deadlines, don’t you have a couple of reports, on cable competition and cable pricing, that have passed their deadlines?

We have several annual reports that the commission produces related to status of competition in different sectors, and we are certainly trying to end up gathering those and getting those out. But I have been focused on DTV transition issues and haven’t had a chance to talk about those with staff or other offices as to what to try to put forward in January.

What is the status of your free broadband proposal?

It is still on circulation, and I would only hope the other commissioners could end up voting it. We are in court right now because the party has claimed that we have a statutory deadline that we missed. We disagree with that.

But at the request of the other commissioners, we put in the order that we would have to act on this by August 2008. That deadline has come and gone, and the commissioners are unwilling to move forward. I put out a memo that had three different options, including “do nothing.” They didn’t even want to pick the “do nothing” if that is what they wanted.

It is still on circulation and I can only hope the commissioners would actually be willing to do something about providing an opportunity for lower-income Americans to have access to broadband.

Doesn’t sound like there’s much chance of doing that while you are still chairman?

I don’t disagree that the prospects are dim. But listen, if they don’t get it done by Jan. 20, I hope they do it right away after.

Is there going to be a decision soon on the retransmission consent quiet period?

I don’t know for sure. I am not sure what authority the commission has on the issue.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.