FCC still strong on a la carte cable

Martin promises to expand broadband services

Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin J. Martin affirmed his commitment to a la carte cable subscriptions and to striking a balance between the need to protect digital content and ensure consumer rights to fair use of it.

During a wide-ranging talk at the Consumer Electronics Show on Tuesday, Martin also pledged that the appointed date for the cutoff of analog television transmission — Feb. 18, 2009 — is solid and will not change, and he further promised to expand the deployment of broadband services this year.

Then, within hours of Martin’s departure from the confab, the House Energy and Commerce Committee formally advised the chairman’s office of an investigation into its regulatory practices and ordered Martin to preserve relevant records.

In a one-on-one discussion with CEA prexy-chief Gary Shapiro, Martin said he’s “all for doing everything I can” to bring about cable a la carte, which he claims will promote competition and help consumers with lower prices and the ability to pick and choose which cable channels they want to receive.

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Cablers have long opposed a la carte, saying it is not economically viable.

When Shapiro asked what guiding principles Martin used in weighing issues involving copyright protection, the chairman responded: “Consumers should still have a right to use legally gotten content, but they really shouldn’t be allowed to become widespread distributors of it.”

Both Hollywood and the recording industries have lobbied Congress for legislation establishing a requirement for antipiracy technology known as broadcast flag. Martin said that was for Congress to decide, but that his own feeling is that any broadcast flag legislation “should be platform-neutral. It should not single out a particular platform,” such as broadcast TV.

Noting the FCC’s priorities for 2008, Martin said adhering to the 2009 cutoff date for analog TV signals is critical given that a current priority — auctioning the analog spectrum — will involve great effort. It would be unwise, he said, to delay the transition to digital after so much work.

“All our efforts and everyone’s efforts is to make sure we can keep moving forward” with the set date, he said.

The transition must be completed by Feb. 18, 2009, under federal law. 

Also, the auction is tied to Martin’s top priority for the new year: promoting more broadband deployment. The frequencies that will become available are capable of carrying enormous amounts of data, thus opening up the wireless possibilities for broadband significantly.

After Martin had left CES to catch his flight, the House Energy & Commerce Committee announced its investigation to determine if regulatory practices “are being conducted in a fair, open, efficient and transparent manner. This investigation will also address a growing number of allegations received by the committee relating to management practices that may adversely affect the agency’s operation.”

The committee had advised Martin last month of its intent to investigate; Tuesday’s letter formally initiated the investigation and cautioned against any attempts to interfere with the probe. “As an added precaution and solely as a temporary measure, we request that you immediately preserve all electronic records, including work email and personal email communications relating to official work of the commission, and calendars and schedules of all employees,” the committee wrote to Martin.