FCC Favors Limited Role in HDTV

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Washington -- Federal Communications Commission chairmanWilliam Kennard told a group of digital-television leaders here last week that the privatesector should be largely responsible for guiding the transition from analog to digitaltelevision.

"We in government should leave you in industry thetask of determining your own business plans," Kennard said, speaking at the"Dawn of Digital" summit here Nov. 16.

Kennard admitted that government has a role in seeing thatthe digital-broadcast spectrum is put to use and in letting consumers know what they'regetting into when they buy digital television sets.

"We get a lot of calls from consumers," he said.Among the questions that those consumers ask about digital television, he added, is,"Will I be able to use it with cable television?"

When it comes to compatibility issues, Kennard believesthat government has a limited, but important, role. For example, Kennard contacted theconsumer-electronics and cable industries by letter earlier this year when he thought thatthey weren't working quickly enough to resolve issues surrounding digital interfaces --what's known as the "fire-wire" standard.

"We could have done it another way," he said."We could have issued a notice of proposed rulemaking. But we realized that if wetook that approach, whatever standards we came up with would be obsolete before the inkdried."

While Kennard offered no definitive statement regardingdigital must-carry, he said it was important for government to make sure that there wereno artificial barriers to cable carriage of digital off-air signals, such as technicalcompatibility issues.

FCC commissioner Susan Ness called the evolution to digital"an unstoppable force," and she called for the various industries involved inthe transition to "come together for the benefit of the American public."

She recommended that digital broadcasters and televisionmanufacturers get involved on a grassroots level by meeting with local communityofficials, cable operators and retailers.

The cable-television industry "continues to believethat this transition offers value to our customers," said June Travis, executive vicepresident and chief operating officer at the National Cable Television Association, who isretiring.

Travis noted that cable companies are engaged in detaileddiscussions with broadcasters in the top 10 markets regarding cable carriage of digitalsignals.

"Progress is being made," she said, but thetransition is evolutionary, and it will vary from market to market. "Sometimes itwill even be messy," she added.