Poor driving standards

In early January, Senator John Sununu (R-NH) announced he was writing legislation that would prohibit the FCC from imposing technology mandates on the broadcast and communications industries.

He said, “The FCC seems to be under the belief that it should occasionally impose technology mandates. These misguided requirements distort the marketplace by forcing the industry to adopt agency-blessed solutions rather than allow innovative and competitive approaches to develop. We have seen this happen with the proposed video flag, and interest groups are pushing for an audio flag mandate as well. Whether well-intentioned or not, the FCC has no business interfering in private industry to satisfy select special interests or to impose its own views. My legislation will ensure that decisions about the design and development of products and services to meet FCC rules are made by technology experts, not government regulators.”

Oh boy, oh boy! Decisions will finally be made by engineers, not bureaucrats! No more finger-in-the-wind decisions like those of former FCC Chairman Reed. No more “I've changed my mind” flipflops like those from former FCC Chairman Powell.

For years, many of us have pushed to require that at least one FCC commissioner have some kind of technical background. The cold truth is that being appointed to the FCC is all about politics and nothing about expertise. It's about kissing fannies and political payoffs. It's never going to be about technical competence.

This rule change sounds great. Technical decisions would be made by experts in the field. SMPTE would be a good group to set technical standards. It's impartial, right? However, is SMPTE willing to become the official standard setters for all of broadcast? Heck, for the right money, anyone will do anything. And, there would be plenty of free money to pay these standards setters.

But then there's the consumer side of standards. Who's the technical expert there? Could a SMPTE-like group set transmission standards and then the consumer guys would develop receivers to match? Or, would the 2000lb Goliath consumer industry tell broadcasters what technology they must implement and to hell with other viewpoints?

Then, there's the small matter of deadlines. Standards development and approval takes time. Consider Microsoft's Windows Media 9, which was submitted to SMPTE in September 2003. SMPTE didn't release an approved standard until April 2006. Did the three-year process negatively impact VC-1's adoption as a compression standard? You bet it did.

This is not meant as a slam on SMPTE's work. Standards setting, even with the best experts, requires time. However, the consumer electronics industry is chomping at the bit to build new products to sell. (The CEA predicts sales to exceed $155 billion this year.) Imagine the pressure under which any standards-setting body would have to operate.

So, while it would be great to get the FCC bureaucrats out of the standards-setting business, would viewers and our industry be any better serviced by a confusion of committees, battling egos and even a panel of highly-qualified experts all claiming that their standard is better than someone else's? I doubt we'd reach our desired destination with the different factions all grasping for the wheel.

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