FCC Chief Clashes with Incoming Administration Over dTV Switchover

13 January 2009

LAS VEGAS: Kevin J Martin (pictured), President Bush's personal appointee to the chair of the Federal Communications Commission, ain't taking no sass from the upstart senator from Illinois even though president-elect Barack Obama will be running the show just one week from today.

In an on-stage bull session at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Martin scoffed at Obama transition team co-chair John Podesta's request to lawmakers last week that they postpone the February 17 nationwide switchover from analog to digital-only TV.

Is this change we can believe in?" asked Consumer Electronics Association president Gary Shapiro while interviewing Martin before an industry audience. Dutifully feeding Martin his cue, Shapiro added: "Do you think it is a good idea for the government to come back and say 'We were only kidding?' I'm baffled."

Seasoned politico that he is, Martin composed his misleadingly youthful features into an expression of civic concern and seized his cue.

"I'm concerned about the confusion that could be created. 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?"

Unfortunately, however, many US citizens have yet to install the necessary converter-boxes that will enable them to receive the digital signal – especially those at the least affluent end of the market who were to be provided by the Bush administration with $40 coupons to meet the cost of converters.

But according to Podesta the program to distribute the coupons "has run out of funds", hence the request for postponement. Martin, however, argued that Congress should stay with its original deadline and fix problems with the coupon program. "I think Congress needs to act fast," he 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."

Martin's days as FCC chairman are numbered, given  that it is the usual practice of incoming presidents to name their own chairman from among the FCC's five commissioners, two of whom are Democrats. Martin says he expects Obama to follow suit.

But, shorn of the chair, he will remain as one of the FCC's five commissioners – unless he quits of his own volition.

Making the most of his last opportunity to publicly pontificate before the changeover, Martin urged the incoming administration to subsidize the national broadband infrastructure to ensure "universal" access to high-speed internet connections.

"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," he said.

Data sourced from Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff