FCC Workin’ Too Hard

Last week the FCC seemed to be in overdrive, having an open meeting, issuing rulings and putting out proposed rulemakings like mad. We covered most of it on last week’s radioshow, but for those who prefer to read I’ll post the text of the news (something I probably don’t do often enough).

Click MORE to read all the juicy commission tidbits on such items as: FCC Accelerates DTV Transition; 13 New TV Content Protection Technologies; Yes To Tapping VoIP; Tightening TV Ownership Loophole; Localism Comment Deadline Extended.

Mg 08-6-04

It has been a busy week at the Federal Communications Commission. On Wednesday, August 4, the FCC held an open meeting where it tackled several broadcast media and telecomm issues. In addition the Commission released decisions related to media ownership and localism.

At its open meeting the Commission adopted an order that implements several steps to accelerate the conversion of the nation’s television broadcast system from analog technology to digital television. Amongst the steps is a firm deadline for digital stations to increase their power levels to serve additional viewers in fringe reception areas or lose interference protection from other stations in those areas.

The Commission also approved 13 content protection technologies under its new broadcast flag rules for digital television. The TV broadcast flag allows a broadcaster to send a signal that prevents a program from being recorded or copied by the viewer.

One of the content technologies approved by the FCC is a controversial proposal by TiVo that would allow consumers to view recorded programs to be shared between any of 9 compatible devices that are registered with TiVo. This feature is controversial because the entertainment industry would like to prevent as much sharing of program content as possible, while consumers and consumer electronics manufacturers have an interest in the ability to share recorded content.

Advocates for allowing greater fair use sharing of creative works are suspicious of the FCC’s role in approving technologies for controlling and protecting copyrighted works, since this is an area otherwise under the supervision of Congress and the US Copyright Office. The FCC’s broadcast flag creates another arena where the entertainment industry can lobby for tighter controls over copyrighted works – even controls that prevent uses that are permissible and legal under copyright law.

FCC Says Tap VoIP

Also at its open meeting, the FCC voted 5-0 that law enforcement agencies should be able to tap Internet-based phone calls made using “voice over IP” technology. In this decision, the Commission decided that Internet phone call providers are subject to the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which ensures that law enforcers will be able to keep up with changing communications technologies.

Some telecommunications industry executives have maintained that, although they support efforts of law enforcement, new rules could be both too expensive and too difficult to apply to the new technology. The United States Telecom Association, which represents the nation’s largest telephone companies, said earlier this year that the ruling requested by law enforcement officials might impede technological progress and impose unreasonable costs on carriers and consumers.

At the commissionÂ’s meeting, FCC Chairman Powell said, “Our tentative conclusion, while correct, is expressly limited to the requirements of the statute and
does not indicate a willingness on my part to find that VoIP services are
telecommunications services.”

By not considering VoIP service to be telecommunications, in effect the FCC excepts VoIP from laws, regulations and taxes that apply to conventional telephone and other telecommunications services.

Tightening TV Ownership Loophole
Earlier in the week, the FCC tackled an aspect of media ownership rules, with an eye towards tightening a loophole. On August 2, the Commission released a proposed rulemaking that may ban in some markets a common type of operating agreement between TV station owners. Under this type of agreement known as a joint sales contract, two or more separately owned TV stations sell their advertising cooperatively, often as a package. In effect, this allows the stations to be managed more like they had one common owner, generally allowing the joined stations to undercut the ad pricing at competing stations.

The FCC said it has “tentatively concluded” that joint sales contracts allow one station to have outsized influence over a small market’s ad prices, sale forces, and stations’ right to reject advertising. Under a new proposed rule, two stations in the same market would be considered commonly owned when they enter a joint sales agreement. This would mean that in markets with fewer than eight separately owned stations, joint sales agreements could effectively be banned because co-owned stations, or “duopolies,” are forbidden in markets that small.

Last summer the FCC voted that radio joint sales agreements between same market stations would be considered duopolies. The tighter rule could be implemented within six months, after a round of public comment.

Localism Comment Deadline Extended
Finally, back on July 1, 2004, the FCC initiated a proceeding, seeking comment from the public on how broadcasters are serving the interests and needs of their communities; whether the Commission needs to adopt new policies, practices, or rules designed to
promote localism in broadcast television and radio; and what those policies, practices, or rules should be. After receiving three requests to extend the comment period for the proceeding, on August 3 the Commission set new due dates.

Interestingly, one of the three requests was filed by the Illini Media Company, which owns the local Daily Illini newspaper and radio station WPGU-FM. The others were submitted by the National Association of Broadcasters and the Media Access Project.

The new date for filing comments on this issue is extended until November 1, 2004, and the date for reply comments is extended until December 1, 2004.