DTV, HD rollout playing out as envisioned

Next month, the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation (RTNDF) will honor former FCC chairman Richard Wiley with a special recognition during its First Amendment Awards Dinner in Washington, D.C.

The RTNDF is recognizing Wiley for a pair of reasons. First, during his tenure at the commission, Wiley played a critical role in promoting competition and easing the regulatory burden broadcasters faced. Second, Wiley was instrumental in the development of HDTV in the United States while serving as the chairman of the FCC Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service.

HD Technology Update spoke with Wiley, who today heads the communications practice of Washington, D.C.-based law firm Wiley Rein, to find out what he considered his greatest challenges in the early days of HD in the United States as well as where he sees First Amendment protections for broadcasters heading.

HD Technology Update: You served for nine years as chairman of the FCC’s Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service. Could you reminisce about what you walked into when assuming that responsibility and what some of your greatest challenges were?

Richard Wiley: I was told it was going to be a two-year project, but when you’re having fun, who’s counting? The greatest challenge was to develop a basis on which to evaluate the various proposals that were put forth. Fortunately, the industry was willing to support the development of the Advanced Television Test Center Laboratory. Under the direction of Peter Fannon, we were able to analyze fairly and objectively the various proponent systems.

Additionally, of course, we discovered midstream that digital was indeed possible, and, unlike our friends in Europe and the Far East, our advisory committee embraced that concept from the start, saw it as something potentially better, and went with it. That proved to be the correct decision.

HD Technology Update: As we stand less than one year away from the DTV transition, I was wondering if you see this digital transition and its associated role in promulgating HDTV acceptance among the public playing out as you envisioned?

Richard Wiley: Yes. In the early 1990s, we actually conceived that low-cost converter boxes would be required for the small percentage — 10 to 15 percent of the population — that would need them. We discussed that on Capitol Hill. We also believed that this whole transition would take in the neighborhood of 20 years. That’s proven to be exactly the case.

HD Technology Update: Does it surprise you that research indicates that as many as half of the people who buy HDTV sets don’t sign up for an HDTV programming service, and that many don’t even realize they can receive over-the-air HD programming for free?

Richard Wiley: Yes. It’s disappointing, but technology is complex for the average citizen. I think it is just going to take more time, more education and more publicity on the advantages that are inherent in digital transmission. Eventually, the word is going to get out as it is increasingly doing.

HD Technology Update: A bill introduced last week in the House and one introduced in the Senate in December proposes allowing full-power broadcasters within 50mi of the U.S.-Mexican border to continue analog and digital simulcast five years after Feb. 17, 2009. Other issues, such as DTV converter boxes with no NTSC tuner, have community broadcasters and translator stations concerned and holding open the possibility of seeking injunctive relief. Do you think these issues or any others will delay the transition deadline, or is it full-speed ahead?

Richard Wiley: No, I don’t see a delay of the deadline. I think the 700MHz auctions and the desire to have the spectrum involved used for other purposes is just too great. I believe the country is prepared to move on. Yes, there are these individual problems that will have to be dealt with by a very able FCC, NTIA and Congress, but one way or the other, we’re going to get the job done.

HD Technology Update: Let’s turn to the other part of your recognition, your efforts as chairman of the FCC to promote competition and lessen media regulation. Has a less restrictive regulatory environment achieved the goal of promoting competition, or has it served as a catalyst for the opposite — greater media concentration?

Richard Wiley: When you see what has happened since the 1970s when I served there, it’s truly amazing. We have so many new technologies, new services, new systems available for the American people that I think the public is being tremendously benefited by the communications revolution.

Obviously, you have to look at whether particular policies and individual situations are working properly. That’s what the FCC is there for. But overall, I am extremely pleased with what’s been a technological revolution over the past quarter century.

HD Technology Update: With ever increasing efficiency in compression technologies that are allowing more channels to be packed into a given amount of bandwidth, as well as the proliferation of alternate methods of distribution like cable, satellite, IPTV and the Internet, how much longer will the government be able to argue credibly that it should be allowed to regulate the speech of broadcasters based on the notion of spectrum scarcity?

Richard Wiley: The time will come when the government will have to re-evaluate its regulatory oversight of functionally equivalent services provided by different industries. That’s particularly true in a digital world, and I think more and more we are going to see parity deregulation becoming inevitable.

I am a great believer in the marketplace. I’m not saying there is no need for regulation, but I think the marketplace is working well in the United States, and I’m very satisfied with the progress we are making.

HD Technology Update: So, are you saying that the proliferation of media will one day lead to a time in which broadcasters will truly enjoy what’s intended by the First Amendment when it says “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press?”

Richard Wiley: Yes, I believe that is inevitable. I can’t tell you the precise time when it would be appropriate. Again, that’s probably something for our public officials and our courts to decide, but I think that day is coming.

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