The government shutdown continues to create a confusing situation for government agencies faced with statutory obligations that are difficult to honor without a working federal bureaucracy. The FCC by law is required to hold a monthly public meeting but, when the bulk of its employees are furloughed, it is difficult to meaningfully adhere to that
The FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Digital Fill-In Translators, to provide television service in areas where a television station’s digital signal does not reach locations that were covered by its analog operations (a proposal we summarized here) was published in the Federal Register today, setting comment dates on this proposal. Comments are due on January 12, and Replies on January 22. As the Commission has already published instructions for filing for temporary authority to operate these stations, broadcasters who are interested in the final rules that may be adopted should look to file comments on these matters before the January 12 deadline. This is another proceeding that is being rushed through the Commission in anticipation of the February 17 end of the digital television transition.
The analog nightlight proceeding is on an even faster track, with comments due on Monday (see our summary of that proceeding here). The Commission has just released a tentative agenda for its January 15 meeting, where the only item it will consider (other than reports from the Commission’s various Bureau Chiefs) will be the analog nightlight proposal. This is likely to be Chairman Martin’s last meeting as chair of the FCC. In light of the Congressional mandate to complete this proceeding by January 15, the Commission will have received comments and replies and digested them into a decision – all in the space of 20 days from the release of its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking – with the Christmas and New Years holidays intervening! If anything, this shows two things – that the FCC can move rapidly if it has to, and that the DTV transition is the one and only real priority on the full Commission’s agenda right now.
The digital television conversion end game is upon us, and everyone seems to be getting a little testy. Seemingly, not everyone is convinced that the consumer education efforts have prepared the public for the transition, and thus Washington seems to be preparing for problems. But, in a last minute attempt to solve some of the potential issues, both Congress and the new Administration have stepped into the breach to put pressure on broadcasters and the FCC to be prepared to deal with the February end date for analog TV. Congress passed legislation authorizing the FCC to allow some television stations in each market to continue to operate in analog after the end of the transition to tell consumers who didn’t make the switch what to do (an analog "life line service"). At the same time, Congress urged the FCC to mind the transition and not start off on new regulatory battles, causing the cancellation of this week’s FCC meeting. In this event-filled 10 days, the new Obama administration also stepped into the DTV transition, a potentially significant issue that will face the new administration less than a month after taking office, pushing broadcasters, cable companies and direct broadcast satellite companies to pay for and establish phone banks to provide assistance to consumers stranded by the transition.
The cancellation of the Commission’s meeting was perhaps the strangest of these matters. The FCC was prepared to hold a meeting later this week, with a full schedule of items to consider, including various items related, in one way or another, to the digital transition. Included were a series of fines to broadcasters, consumer electronics stores, and others for not doing everything required by the rules to facilitate the digital transition. The Commission was also planning to start the rulemaking process to authorize digital "fill-in" translators, i.e. low powered TV stations rebroadcasting a main station on other channels within the main station’s service area to fill holes in digital service. Plus, the FCC was to deal with the Chairman’s proposals for a free wireless Internet service on channels being vacated by television stations as part of the transition. Yet, Congressman Henry Waxman, the new chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Senator Rockefeller, the newly appointed Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee ( the committees with responsibility over the FCC) wrote a letter to the FCC saying that it should concentrate its efforts on the transition, and not take up issues on which the new administration may want a role (perhaps the wireless service). After receiving the letter, the December meeting was canceled (the first time in memory that the FCC did not have a monthly meeting as seemingly required by Section 5 of the Communications Act).
The FCC has released the agenda for its first open meeting of the year, scheduled for this Thursday, January 17, 2008. The agenda consists solely of presentations by the various Bureau Chiefs discussing their various policies and procedures in implementing the agency’s "strategic plan." Such an agenda, while not common, is not unheard of, especially for the first meeting of the year, and especially after so many controversial decisions were made in the last two meetings at the end of 2007.
This agenda was released a few days after House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell announced an investigation of the Commission’s rulemaking procedures and management practices. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has been under fire from Republicans and Democrats alike in both the House and Senate, especially following the agency’s December meeting in which the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban was modified, as we discussed here. Congress has criticized the agency’s lack of transparency, and infighting among the Commissioners has become open and much talked about in Washington, as reflected in meetings that are often delayed by hours and in Commissioner’s Copps’ vitriolic dissenting statement read aloud at the December meeting.