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FCC Chair Talks TV, Opines On Openness

LAS VEGAS--Late yesterday afternoon, I sat down with Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin to talk about a a couple of perennial CES topics -- the digital-TV transition and "openness," the idea that a product shouldn't be tied to any one company's service.

By the numbers, the switch to digital from analog TV is rolling along; analog broadcasts are scheduled to end on Feb. 17, 2009, televisions and video recorders with analog-only tuners have vanished from stores, and more than half of American households already own a digital TV. But Martin noted that many broadcasters are still tweaking their digital signals and transmitter towers to ensure that viewers of over-the-air broadcasters will get the same reception that they achieved with analog.

The stickier part, Martin said, is ensuring that customers know what to do when analog airwaves disappear.

"Consumers are becoming increasingly aware that the digital transition is coming, but we need to make sure that we've clarified what that means for them." The FCC has a site,, explaining these details, and now the Department of Commerce has its own Web site for the transition -- -- at which people can apply for a $40 coupon towards the purchase of a converter box that will allow an analog TV to pick up digital broadcasts.

In addition, Martin said FCC staffers have been going out and making in-person presentations about digital TV at senior centers and other locations around the country.

As for openness, which is something Martin heard complaints about from electronics manufacturers at last year's CES, the picture is a little bit mixed.

This summer, the FCC began requiring cable operators to use a standard "CableCard" security scheme that allows TVs and other devices to tune into cable broadcasts without the services of a separate cable box, but not all manufacturers are rushing to take advantage of this opportunity. Panasonic is demonstrating a digital video recorder and a TV that offer the same access to interactive cable services as a cable operator's own box, but many (if not most) HDTVs on the show floor don't feature CableCard slots at all.

Martin said this will change as companies figure out what new kinds of video gadgets they can build, saying this new interoperability standard will "allow for additional innovation to occur."

In cellphones, however, things are moving faster than anybody predicted since the FCC voted to impose openness requirements on the upcoming auction of the 700 Mhz chunk of the airwaves that will become available with the retirement of analog TV broadcasts. (See how all this stuff comes back together?) Google and numerous industry partners are working on an open cellphone platform, Verizon has said it will open its own network and AT&T has suddenly made a point of advertising its network's support for compatible phones not sold by AT&T.

"What's been great to see is that other companies are embracing a more open model," Martin said. "Everybody's now talking about this is what they want--including the incumbent carriers."

Do you feel like you're ready for the digital-TV transition? And do you share the chairman's optimism about cell-phone openness? How about in the TV business? The comments are yours...

By Rob Pegoraro  |  January 8, 2008; 1:40 PM ET
Categories:  CES 2008  
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Next: Web-ifying the TV


The writer fails to point out that when the digital switch-over occurs in Feb.'09 about 7300 LPTV and translators throughout the country will continue to transmit in analog. This means in most every TV market in the country viewers will still be able to see many channels they now enjoy such as faith channels, Spanish language, shopping, and in DC the new WUFO TV Network. The FCC has NOT yet issued a ruling when the LPTV and translator stations will have to switch, which may take years more to accomplish.

Posted by: Mike Gravino | January 8, 2008 3:04 PM | Report abuse

It is debatable whether the FCC and other government agencies have done enough to inform the public about the changeover in February 2009. IMHO, they've not done nearly enough, but I will wait with my fingers crossed.

What is not open to debate is the fact that the government has failed miserably in putting together a plan to deal with all of the analog TVs that will be discarded following the changeover. Yes, many households will take advantage of the $40 coupons. But that overlooks the fact that most households have multiple TVs, and many households will not want to buy even a price-reduced converter box for an older TV. That means that millions of TVs will be discarded in March, April, May of 2009.

And discarded with those TVs will be literally tons of mercury, cadmium, lead and other harmful materials.

The failure to plan for this massive increase in the hazardous waste stream is criminal.

Posted by: dg | January 8, 2008 3:05 PM | Report abuse

They've removed the National channels from Dish Network, and my subscription will probably be cancelled in January 2009. I really don't need HD for O'Reilly.
As far a cell phones are concerned, I need one with a plan, perhaps pre-paid, with an infinite roll over of minutes, so I can use them when I'm in a metro area.
Some value, please.

Posted by: lrmc623 | January 8, 2008 3:18 PM | Report abuse

the whole situation is annoying. As a militant techno-phobe, I hate, absolutely HATE!, having to muck around with my electronics. I had to have the geeks hook up this computer and old boyfriends hooked up all my media components. Now, or so I'm led to understand, I have to try and figure out what the "f" I'll need to do to continue receiving the cable television service for which I pay waaaayyyy too much. Not only will I have to deal with their snarky "customer service" people (if indeed I ever GET to an actual people), I'll probably end up having to pay for some type of converter and then the cost of having someone come out and put it where ever it's supposed to go. Make that TWO converters.


Posted by: Mara | January 8, 2008 3:19 PM | Report abuse

Has the gov't done enough to inform the public? by no means. What about all the people living below the poverty line who have old tvs they rely on now being forced to purchase a new one (that they cant afford) and not understanding why. TV was the one medium everyone rallies around and can agree upon is so mainstream. To go about and change it without spreading the information freely shows the lack of concern because thsi will effect those who already can't afford/manage the switch the most! And is it necessary? Only because "they" say so.

Posted by: zb | January 8, 2008 3:36 PM | Report abuse

Silly question perhaps, but how can one find you if the TV is digital-ready? Mine is circa 2000 and works fine for now. A little help.

Posted by: Drew | January 8, 2008 3:40 PM | Report abuse

As the Medicare Part D bill did for insurance and pharmaceutical companies, this mandated digital TV transition is aimed at benefitting TV manufacturers and retailers, and YES! CABLE COMPANIES. It's all about special interests, and not about consumers and taxpayers.

Posted by: Rivery | January 8, 2008 4:29 PM | Report abuse

As the switch over to Digital is coming on a pace in the UK, the first area has already switched. All anolog TV's are still usable as all that is needed is a Digi Box connected to your normal TV, just like a cable box and a suitable aeriel, so why are people advocating buying a new TV is beyond me.

Posted by: bobbyb(UK) | January 8, 2008 5:34 PM | Report abuse

Not only has the government done almost nothing to inform people about the change, they haven't done anything to make the converter boxes easy to get. The FCC "converter box retailer" page is empty, and when I tried to find the coupon-eligible tuners listed on the FCC website at Amazon, none were there.

I only watch a little TV and dropped my cable service years ago. However, I still watch the local stations from time to time and would like to get one of these converters. I have no interest in purchasing a new TV until my current set dies out (it's about 5 years old, so it should have at least another 5 years to go). Is my situation really that unusual?

Posted by: TEL | January 8, 2008 5:43 PM | Report abuse

Martin is a Chimpy crony and a corporate ho. He wants to sell all our airwaves - which are owned by ALL of us as a public trust - to big corporations who want to brainwash us.

It figures the FCC would screw up the transition from analog broadcast TV to digital. With all those low power repeaters still broadcasting analog, that bandwith will be worthless to the wireless companies that buy it.

So the FCC screwed up, like every single alphabet agency has screwed up under the Chimpy regime. Chimpy and the Repukes have destroyed our government and are destroying our great nation.

Do not vote Repuke if you love our country.

Posted by: Tom3 | January 8, 2008 5:56 PM | Report abuse

Mara, cool it. You're getting way ahead of yourself. If you have cable, you don't need to worry about the analog-to-digital switchover. The only people who need to worry are those people who still use their TV's antennas to pick up over-the-air signals.

So, just cool it and stop your whining.

Posted by: Ryan | January 8, 2008 6:06 PM | Report abuse

This change is being forced down our throats by our government without any public input. What about an environmental impact study? Public comments?

A $40 coupon for a $100 converter box for 3 or 4 for tv's? How quaint. When many low income households eventually won't have any TV, the emergency broadcasting system warnings will be worthless.

Posted by: twbryant | January 8, 2008 6:17 PM | Report abuse

I would like to see the Feb 19, 2009 date move up one month to Jan 19, 2009. It would be wonderful to see what happens in America when the people turn on their TV on Jan 20th to see who the Next President is- and to get NOTHING! 2009 will be interesting !

Posted by: Dave | January 8, 2008 6:26 PM | Report abuse

bobbyb (UK) suggested that all that's needed is a Digi Box but I have no idea why I need to switch from a television that I recently bought to watch over the air (broadcast channels, 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13 is all I really need; I don't need 500 cable or satellite or direct TV channels even though there are several stations I might like; I just don't need them) and I have no idea what a Digi Box is, where to get one, how much it costs, what it will or can do, or how to hook one up. I realize that the new system will give me a better picture but this is television we're talking about; I don't sit in the exact same place each and every time I have the television one; if I'm watching the talk shows, I really don't need the perfection of a screen that will show me each face hair that was missed during the morning shave, and I can live without perfection for every color in the spectrum. Now, can someone tell me, in simple layman's English, why we're getting rid of a perfectly good system and creating a government program that needs to give people credit vouchers to replace a perfectly good television, credit vouchers for which I will have to add additional money for a television to replace the one that works fine as is.

And I'm happy to get anyone's e-mail that can answer me.

Posted by: XMinusOne | January 8, 2008 6:48 PM | Report abuse

If Mara is getting way ahead of himself/herself, maybe I am, but I apparently have to worry because, as you wrote "If you have cable, you don't need to worry about the analog-to-digital switchover." I don't have, don't need, and don't want cable. Does that mean I should worry?

Posted by: JJ | January 8, 2008 6:51 PM | Report abuse

@ Mara-
Lady, you're not affected. Do yourself a favor and get more into tech. It's what drives the world.

Posted by: Byronic Hero | January 8, 2008 7:08 PM | Report abuse

Those of us who are not happy with the switch can all thank Michael Powell, Colin's son, for the swithch. Powell is now working for the industry. Like the man said, it reminds him of Medicare drug when the Louisiana republican who pushed the law that Medicare could not negotiate for lower prices then he went to work for the drug industry.

Posted by: truth1 | January 8, 2008 7:15 PM | Report abuse

I've tried to find a digital converter. The only unit I found was a Samsung converter at BestBuy that is over $270. With analog going away in 13 months, how long must we wait until the converters are available for purchase?

Sounds like another ill-conceived concept by the Republican controlled FCC. They are about payback to their big business cronies.

The FCC recently voted, by party line, to allow media conglomorates to get bigger and reduce the number sources for news stories. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin already had decided to vote for it prior to any of the "public" hearings. He is nothing but a party hack.

Posted by: sarge | January 8, 2008 7:42 PM | Report abuse

To twbryant and all the others complaining about "poor people" only having analog signal receiveing tvs: You do not know what you are talking about. Major studies in fact were undertaken by the FCC and Congress, and, guess what?? "Poor people" often have more and better tvs that already are capable of receiving digital signals (e.g. expensive flat screen plasmas and LCDs) then the rest of the population. In fact, surprisingly, entertainment is often the arena in which poor people spend most of their money. They also subscribe to cable and satllite in overwhelming numbers and so do not even have to worry about the transition. The elderly are another story and it is they we should be most concerned about. The FCC is taking great steps to inform citizens, especially those in groups that will be particularly affected (eldery & rural). Over 85% of the population will not be affected due to their subscriptions to cable or satellite providers. So, most of you have nothing to worry about. Most "poor people" (your term, not mine BTW) are part of that 85%. Its the eldery and folks in rural America that will have the toughest change ahead.

Posted by: Washingtonian | January 8, 2008 7:56 PM | Report abuse

I live in Columbia and, while I have a digital TV and fiber TV I did notice that BestBuy here had a Samsung digital TV converter box for sale. They are out there but they are hard to find. I suspect that as we get closer to the end of this year they will show up in stores in reasonable quantities. If you have an analog TV just wait. There's no sense in spending the money until late next fall.


Posted by: Bob | January 8, 2008 8:18 PM | Report abuse

One good reason for the switch that I don't read about very much is the fact that Digital TV can broadcast more channels than the analog system. Best example, WETA Ch 26 broadcasts 4 digital channels, one in HD and three in Standard Definition. If you have a TV with analog reception you get just one. As far as I can tell there are at least 16 digital channels in the DC market versus the 9? in analog.

The Feds do need to provide the digital receivers for free. The airwaves are supposed to be a public trust and it needs to be protected.

Posted by: NW DC | January 8, 2008 8:22 PM | Report abuse

I find that the Digital signals over an antena are not as strong as the analog signals. My HD TV digital signals break up, causing the picture to freeze up or come in pieces. When the HD signal is strong, the picture is great, but when it is not, the analog picture is the only one that I can watch. Are others having the same problem?

Posted by: antena user | January 8, 2008 8:44 PM | Report abuse

The ignorance on this board is amazing. How difficult is it to understand this whole process?! Ferchrissakes, if you're reading this, chances are you know how to use a computer and perhaps have even hooked up a VCR! People are commenting here as if the vast majority of us have never hooked up an electrical device or appliance. (Oh my god, it's technology! run for your lives!!)

Go to the web site, It's all spelled out there. Apply for the box at the NTIA Web site, but only if you have a TV that only gets over the air broadcasts and is not hooked up to cable or satellite.

It really is that simple.

Posted by: Tom | January 8, 2008 8:48 PM | Report abuse

NW DC is correct when they say that Channel 26 now has 4 digital stations, a cooking station, a kids station, and two programming stations. When these come in over the antenna, they look great. However, most often they freeze up, just have audio, or don't come in. The analog station always comes in, sometimes with snow, but I can always hear and see the action. I think this is because of the fact that analog has a wider bandwidth, while digital is a narrow bandwidth. The sales staff at Circuit City and Best Buy have no idea of why the problem is occurring and have never experienced it with cable or dish recievers. My guess is that this will happen to lots of people once they buy a converter and then they will have to get cable of a dish antenna.

Posted by: antenna user | January 8, 2008 8:51 PM | Report abuse

First of all , unless you are getting over the air TV signals you do not need any kind of converter boxes. I have two 20 year old TV's with rotary dials that are on my satellite dish along with my HD TV and they all work fine. The same happens for those getting regular cable. If you go to the digital cable the cable company provides you with the controller.
The over the air broadcast for an HD Channel does not carry as far as the current analog channels. The analog signal slowly fades with distance and it all depends upon how much snow you want to see. With the digital signal it is either strong enough to see or not. It is more bothered by anything that flys through that transmission from Birds to planes. It will pixilize very easily and in fact very often it is not the signal to you that pixilizes but rather the signal to the broadcast tower from the station. Get used to it because it happens.

Posted by: Don Armstrong | January 8, 2008 9:04 PM | Report abuse

Why do people think having TV is an entitlement? Really, the entitlement should be to having Internet access. I don't have a TV, although I could buy one if I wanted one, but am happier being able to choose what I want to read and watch rather than getting whatever producers think I should see.

Interactivity is much more interesting than gawking endlessly.

Posted by: Michael | January 8, 2008 9:06 PM | Report abuse

I also remember the FCC saying that digital tuners were going to cost about $50 or so, not $300. I understand that these tuners are expensive because they are designed primarily to pick up an HD-quality signal for HDTVs, not to be digital-to-analog converters. And I think the change to digital is a good thing in the long run. But with the changeover happening in about a year, the fact that no reasonably priced tuners are yet available suggests another political fiasco building.

If affordable converters are not available, those of us who don't subscribe to cable will be stuck with the choice of either buying an expensive HD tuner or spending a little more on a new TV, neither of which is necessary for this situation.

Posted by: TEL | January 8, 2008 9:07 PM | Report abuse

No, the FCC has not done its job well in serving and informing the public (surprise, surprise). But this is not a vast conspiracy by your government to make our lives miserable. The changeover is happening for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the reuse of the old analog TV spectrum space for the nation's first responders, who have been struggling for years to find ways to operate better quality communication devices in local, state or national emergencies. Other reasons are economic; this will open up new uses for digital television that we have not even thought of yet, but which are simply not possible with analog.

As for the unusual date of the switchover, the original date has been postponed many times because the National Association of Broadcasters and others whined to Congress about not being able to meet the numerous earlier deadlines. The February date was chosen (and I am not kidding about this) because Congress was afraid that if the change came on January 1st or 31st, for instance, and people learned at the last minute that their TV did not pick up the Super Bowl, the electoral fallout would make the fight over illegal immigration look like a Sunday picnic.

Posted by: jaypem | January 8, 2008 9:16 PM | Report abuse

A little known fact - Radios with TV-Broadcast bands will also "go dark" and become useless that day. As well as the battery-operated TVs that many people (including myself) keep for use in case of emergencies (earthquake, tornado, flood). They will be useless. And yet, they are still being sold.

Also, in the past, most news articles on the digital switch have been put in either the business section or tech section pages. This is important, first-page news. Why isn't it on page one?

Posted by: Bob tv-watcher | January 8, 2008 9:16 PM | Report abuse

Almost nobody is aware of this changeover in 09.

Between the internet and the Digital TV Act, free television with public affairs will go extinct within a decade.

The telcom industry and the emergency responders lobby pulled the rug out from under the TV ingenuity in this country. The skids were greased by greedy politicians and CSPAN, arm of the cable consortium.

Free TV is a walking dean man.

Posted by: Watcher of the Gov | January 8, 2008 9:42 PM | Report abuse

This has been talked about for years could no one see it coming? My 60 year parents living in the mountains of Western PA knew about it last year and have already bought a HDTV with a OTA to get their TV reception.

Posted by: amazed | January 8, 2008 10:12 PM | Report abuse

I just walked over here, and Watcher, I am no Free TV.

Posted by: Dean Man | January 8, 2008 10:31 PM | Report abuse

here we go again.another american freedom
stripped away.i don't think our government
wants us to have any freedoms anymore.

Posted by: ripprok | February 19, 2008 11:32 PM | Report abuse

I think this is very wrong cause what about the elderly who are low income and have no resources to purchase these converters are we just going to say if you can't afford it then the hell with you do without? That is very disrespectful towards our elderly.

Posted by: Patty Brown | March 31, 2008 10:22 AM | Report abuse

The variety of comments on this page are good example of how poor a job is being done to inform the general public. I think most people feel blind sided because there wasn't any discernable discussion open prior to the act being passed. This has all the look and feel of a "fast one" being pulled on us again. Lots of people have analog TVs where I live.(Yes, it is a medium-sized market in America's heartland.)NOT just "poor people" and the elderly. The satallite &/or cable service here charges extra for local stations to be included in their packages, and since many NEED local service for frequent weather warnings,(It is a 'tornado-alley') lots of people have stuck with analog. Receiving network programs -NBC,ABC,CBS,PBS,& FOX suit most families fine and we don't worry so much about parental controls as much to keep our kids viewing safe. With the way the economy is taking its toll, every family I know is pinching pennies and looking where to cut bills. Adding cable or satallite is not feasible. I logged on today to try and find out "why the switch?" and I am infuriated!!! to know that from what I can surmise it is to allow the sale of our "free" bandwidth to cellphone companies. First responders I bet won't get but the "hindtit" of this band, because too many polititians are selling out to corporate interests! all I can say is: SHAME ON YOU Uncle Charlie!!! We'll remember you come election time.

Posted by: Betrayed Veiwer of Independence | April 16, 2008 6:42 PM | Report abuse

Years ago there was a Three Stooges movie where they decided to be plumbers. They went to this house to do a simple repair and the more they worked, the worse the situation became until finally they had pretty much wrecked the house including a major flood. This transition to digital TV reminds me of that movie.

Posted by: Melvin Childers | April 21, 2008 2:51 PM | Report abuse

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