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Tech Industry

FCC chief buoys VoIP, satellite radio

Michael Powell says government prefers a hands-off approach to such technologies.

LAS VEGAS--Michael Powell had a rare bit of good news Thursday for shock jock Howard Stern, saying the government had no interest in censoring satellite radio.

Engaging in a question-and-answer session at the Consumer Electronics Show, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission dismissed notions that broadcast radio operators will suffer unless the growing satellite radio business is subjected to the same content restrictions that forbid "the seven dirty words."

"I think it's a dangerous thing to start talking about extending government oversight of content to other media just to level the playing field," Powell said.

Stern cited freedom from censorship as one of his primary reasons for signing a contract last year with satellite radio broadcaster Sirius, after years of run-ins with the FCC over his broadcast radio program.

Broadcast radio operators have made several unsuccessful attempts to restrict satellite radio content. But Powell said the merging of media formats and the Internet and changing attitudes favor minimal oversight.

"At the end of the day, I think we're going to move in the direction of the Jeffersonian free-speech tradition," he said.

Powell cited the fast-growing Internet telephony industry as an endorsement of the FCC's new attitude against protectionism and overregulation, saying the industry is taking off partly because the agency put consumer interests ahead of those of traditional telecommunications operators.

"We should actually for once be proud of the FCC," he said. "I think (VoIP) is the thing I'm most proud of in watching the commission go forward rather than backward."

More frustrating issues include the switch from analog television to digital high-definition signals. Federal laws set conflicting landmarks for requiring broadcasters to make the switch, resulting in needless confusion for consumers, Powell said.

"Consumers need to be told, when they're at Circuit City and they have to choose between a $300 analog set and a $3,000 digital set--'When do I have to have this?'" he said. "They deserve an answer...What we have now is absolute ambiguity."

Powell said the FCC would have to settle on a real deadline by late this year, and the sooner the better, given the consumer lust for high-tech TV sets. "Consumers actually love it more than I ever thought they were going to," Powell said. "People are selling their second mortgage to buy an HDTV set."

Powell said the biggest challenge for the FCC remains the continuing merging of communications roles, which conflicts with laws that treat telephone companies much differently than cable operators, for instance.

"How we classify you has a huge regulatory influence," he said, "but it is getting very difficult to decide what bucket to put you in...Comcast may have started out as a cable company, but there's no doubt in my mind that soon you'll be able to look at them and SBC and not find a meaningful difference in what they do."