Congress impatient over DTV

Dec 3, 2001  •  Post A Comment

If the television, movie and consumer electronics industries don’t soon resolve their differences over digital TV and make “substantial progress,” the House Energy & Commerce Committee lawmakers will offer legislation in the first half of 2002 to force them to do so, Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., told Electronic Media last week.
The warning, made during an exclusive interview with Rep. Tauzin after last week’s second meeting on Capitol Hill of the so-called DTV roundtable, is a sharp departure from his earlier statements.
Hanging in the balance is resolution of disputes over digital must-carry, copyright protection, cable set-top box specifications, cable connections to DTV sets, the give-back of analog spectrum, DTV programming availability and DTV conversion deadlines that already have stymied the rollout of the new television service.
Until now, Rep Tauzin, who chairs the House Energy & Commerce Committee, has said he wants to avoid congressional intervention and give the
parties time to negotiate. But after the Nov. 28 meeting of legislators, lobbyists, executives and federal regulators, he changed his tune.
“I think it’s incumbent upon us now to say, `Time’s up,”’ he said, admitting to “a little” disappointment over the slow pace of industry negotiations. His comments reflect a growing drumbeat being sounded by key media-minded lawmakers, such as Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., that only legislation can fix the DTV quagmire.
To an extent, Rep. Tauzin said, it’s not surprising that the parties are still squabbling, because Congress left it to them to reach agreement. He thinks the roundtable meetings have been helpful and said progress has been made on setting standards for software that lets cable set-top boxes pass digital broadcast programming through to cable customers.
Rep. Markey, the ranking minority member on the House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, warned the industry parties at the first roundtable meeting in October that legislation might be necessary. He told Electronic Media last week that the second meeting reinforced his stance.
“I think that our committee is moving toward taking action if the seemingly unresolvable issues are not resolved,” he said. “It will require the Congress and the [Federal Communications Commission] to become more deeply involved.”
The congressman said private negotiations will never solve such sticky issues as digital must-carry, which has triggered a back-and-forth dispute between broadcasters and cable companies over the framework for cable carriage of DTV signals.
FCC Chairman Michael Powell, another participant, said “a lot of progress” was made. He downplayed the unresolved issues, saying what’s important is the parties are negotiating.
Rep. Tauzin said cable industry officials pledged at the meeting to publish around January the specifications for cable set-top-box software so the other parties can review them. Lawmakers will hold another DTV roundtable meeting in January to discuss the specs, known in industry parlance as OCAP, or open cable applications platform.
Without such standards, consumers won’t be able to receive cable programming over their new and pricey DTV sets. After the standards are published, the parties can then determine what digital content consumers should be allowed to make copies of and how often, the Louisiana congressman said.
“Once that is agreed upon, then it’s fairly well certain that the consumer products industry can then begin producing products that will be useful to consumers in all of the cable markets,” Rep. Tauzin said.