Martin says digital transition is on track

FCC chairman Kevin Martin told a skeptical House subcommittee that plans are on track for broadcasters to make a smooth transition to all-digital television next year.

And in response to criticism from lawmakers of his other policy pursuits, the FCC boss said he is not targeting the cable biz for tougher regulations and that protecting the interests of consumers is his primary agenda.

With chairman Edward Markey (D-Mass.) noting that the transition to digital telecasting for thousands of TV stations is “a mere 370 days away,” the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet pressed Martin to say how many households will suffer as a result of the switch, since geographic coverage provided by digital signals won’t be as strong or far-reaching as that provided by existing analog signals.

In a study released earlier this week, research firm Centris claimed the number of households that will exceed the geographic reach of DTV signals could be significant because the FCC’s models for estimated coverage are off by more than a factor of two.

Martin told Markey that the Centris study was flawed, a charge supported by broadcast policy group the Assn. for Maximum Service Television.

Still, Martin allowed that perhaps 5% of over-the-air-dependent households may slip through the cracks amid the transition, but he claimed the FCC is working hard to reduce that possibility.

Markey urged Martin to do everything he could to address the issue.

“Congress is a stimulus-response institution,” Markey added. “There’s nothing more stimulating than a million people calling to say they can’t get a channel that they’ve gotten since 1949.”

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) chastised Martin for what some label his anticable policies, such as invalidating cablers’ exclusive contracts with apartment and condo buildings and his ongoing push for a la carte cable subscriptions. Eshoo said these policies were sure to increase cable sub rates.

Martin defended his cable policies, saying they have all been a result of his concern about “the dramatic increase in cable rates” over the last 10 years and that they would lead to lower rates.

“I’m concerned about cable because 80% of consumers are concerned that they’re paying too much,” he said.

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