Friday, March 19, 2010

Reed Hundt did something "naughty" with the HDTV Transition

You may remember Reed Hundt. He was the Chairman of the FCC under Bill Clinton, at the time that agency was planning for the transition to HDTV. The original plan was to implement HDTV in the same way as Japan had done it--one resolution, one refresh rate, one single standard. The FCC instead mandated a convoluted standard that required some 17 combinations of resolutions and refresh rates to be supported; even what we now consider Standard Definition was included in the HD standard, in order to support data applications over broadcast bandwidth. Chairman Hundt invited Microsoft into the process, and Microsoft demanded a series of changes to the standard in order to support its plans. What was originally a clean, straightforward and reasonably inexpensive upgrade became complex and expensive for everyone--broadcasters, cable and satellite operators, and consumers.

Earlier this month, at the Columbia Business School, Mr. Hundt gave a speech where he admitted that he and his associates deliberately logjammed the HDTV transition with the intention of killing it entirely. Here's a direct quote: "This is a little naughty...we delayed the transition to HDTV, and fought a big battle against the whole idea but we lost." If Mr. Hundt and his associates were so dead-set against HDTV, why didn't they fight it out in the open instead of waging a passive-aggressive war of changing the specifications and moving the goalposts? If he and his associates had been honest, we wouldn't need this National Broadband Plan--there would be plenty of bandwidth for broadcasters and for broadband wireless services. Instead, we've got the world's most expensive and convoluted HDTV system, many consumers still aren't getting true HD, and tons of bandwidth is lying fallow in subchannels mandated by the FCC.

We have to dramatically increase the availability of broadband access at prices that U.S. consumers can afford. As I've written previously, the National Broadband Plan says precious little about how it's going to lower costs to consumers, and puts few demands on the incumbent telephone and cable providers. It's biased to take its "pound of flesh" from broadcasters. Is what we're seeing a real attempt to make broadband available to everyone at an affordable price, or is it merely the continuation of Mr. Hundt's now almost 20-year-long war against broadcasters?

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