FCC’s Martin wants to ease shift to DTV

Nov 5, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The boyish-looking Kevin Martin, one of the newer regulators at the Federal Communications Commission and one of its youngest ever, is careful and guarded when he answers questions from the press.
So it was a little surprising when the normally staid bureaucrat had plenty to say when asked whether he’s troubled by the slow progress of the digital television transition.
Mr. Martin expressed concern that some FCC rules may be “harming” rather than helping broadcasters. He thinks the FCC should offer small- and medium-size market stations more leeway in meeting its digital buildout requirements.
The FCC is requiring commercial stations to convert by May 2002, but the National Association of Broadcasters has warned that hundreds of mostly smaller stations won’t make the deadline and will need relief.
Under current FCC rules, a station’s digital signal must completely encompass the area covered by its analog signal. But Mr. Martin said the requirement is a challenge for small-market stations because it’s harder for them to recoup their conversion costs than it is for big-city broadcasters.
“That can be very costly, particularly in some of the rural markets,” he said. The solution: Let broadcasters in nonurban areas offer digital signals that cover part but not all of their markets while they slowly expand their DTV signals.
At deadline, sources said the FCC was expected to adopt regulations permitting this flexibility at its Nov. 8 meeting. The NAB supports the idea.
A downside is that some households would be left without access to DTV signals during the transition, which could dissuade them from buying DTV sets, further delaying the transition. However, Mr. Martin said a limited signal is better than none.
He also wants the FCC to permit small and rural broadcasters to share more digital facilities at the outset to reduce overhead costs. NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said some stations are already sharing DTV transmission towers.
The regulator thinks the FCC should move more quickly to complete pending proceedings related to the transition. That includes rule-makings addressing must-carry requirements during the transition and interoperability standards for digital TV sets and cable set-top boxes.
“Without that kind of certainty, they can’t put their business plans in place,” he said, hinting that the agency is partly to blame for the situation. The FCC has created a digital transition task force to examine some of these issues.