FCC digs in on digital

Kennard says gov't may intervene on carriage

ATLANTA — FCC Chairman Bill Kennard said Tuesday that his agency will intervene within “the next few months” if talks between cablers and broadcasters do not result in widespread carriage of broadcasters’ digital signals.

“If the industries don’t move quickly to reach solutions, then the government must step in,” said Kennard in an address at the annual National Cable Television Assn.

Kennard’s message to cable was direct: His agency is prepared to impose regulations to make sure that cable plays a leading role in broadcasters’ conversion to digital television.

“No industry will be able to roll out digital unilaterally. You will have to work together to propose solutions for things like must-carry. And you will have to find marketing solutions so consumers can easily adapt to the new technologies,” the FCC chair said.

Kennard did not set a specific deadline, but he did note that the first commercial digital stations will be up and running in November, “so these issues must be worked out soon, otherwise the FCC will have to take the lead.”

Both Kennard and his fellow commissioner Susan Ness have said during the last two days that they are encouraged by announcements by cablers and broadcasters that the two industries are negotiating voluntary carriage agreements for digital signals. But both Kennard and Ness have refused to rule out a federal must-carry requirement for broadcasters’ digital signals if the talks do not pay off with broad carriage of TV station’s digital signals.

The FCC, by order of Congress, must also soon begin a rule-making process on set-top box that will provide cable subscribers with everything from Internet access to the ability to watch digital signals on an analog television set.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the industry to set a standard that would allow retailers to sell set-top boxes in stores. That means the industry must agree to a standard that will allow a subscriber to move from cable system to another without having to buy a new box. The FCC will also be taking a close look at the issue to ensure that the next generation of set-top boxes are HDTV friendly.

One of Kennard’s concerns is that the set-top box will limit broadcasters’ ability to reach cable customers with their HDTV signals, “I call on you to develop set-top boxes that do not disadvantage others who want access to consumers,” said Kennard.

Earlier this week Tele-Communications Inc. announced that it had reached an agreement with Microsoft to write the software for its first 5 million set-top boxes. Those first- generation boxes will not be able to process the 1080I HDTV format that will be used by CBS and NBC. That means only those TCI subscribers with HDTV televisions will be able to watch CBS’ and NBC’s HDTV programming. Kennard declined to comment on the specifics of TCI’s announcement.

Tuesday’s address was Kennard’s first major speech to cablers. And it was a trip he almost did not make. Kennard, the FCC’s first African-American chairman, had been invited to attend a conference in South Africa and to meet with South Africa’s president Nelson Mandela. Kennard said Tuesday that “friends in the cable industry” urged him to forgo the trip to South Africa to attend the conference here. Kennard’s predecessor, former Chairman Reed Hundt, did not attend his first NCTA convention because he accompanied Vice President Al Gore on a trip to Argentina. The cable industry, which was already reeling from Hundt’s efforts to reregulate their subscription fees, never forgot Hundt’s absence.