CES Notebook: Communications Chief Seems Less Than Communicative

Las Vegas--It's a fact that most of the participants at the Consumer Electronics Show here seem to take casual Fridays seriously. Executives from Microsoft Corp. to Verizon Communications to Intel Corp. to Toshiba Electronics made appearances involving billions of dollars and thousands of jobs, and almost never wore a tie or dark suit. But not the regulators.

The tell-us-what-to-do set still loves the buttoned-down look: coordinated shirts and ties for the men, black-and-white checked outfits for the ladies, and fine leathers for both are the order of the day for the beltway set.

So it was no surprise that when newly installed Federal Communications Chairman Kevin Martin made his first annual state-of-the-industry chat Friday, he and the crowd were a thousand shades of gray.

The grayest of which was Martin himself.

Those concerned about who would replace outgoing Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan as the sovereign of public policy opacity need worry no more. Martin has stepped up his game to fill the void for void-ness.



In nearly an hour-long question-and-answer session with Consumer Electronics Association President Gary Shapiro--which must have easily exceeded 100,000 words--Martin set a fresh bar for convoluted sentences, contradictory remarks, and mumbling.

Although Shapiro attempted to honestly quiz Martin on a wide range of topics ranging from high-definition television to telecommunications, it was often difficult to interpret what Martin had in mind.

On the hard transition from analog to digital television, Martin on the one hand was encouraged that Congress had passed a hard date for the transfer, but on the other hand was aware of the impact on poorer consumers who are forced to buy new equipment.

On regulating voice-over-Internet-protocol telephony, Martin was again mixed. He said that he was interested in supporting innovation--but he was also concerned about 911 emergency calling.

The only time that Martin seemed clear was when he drifted from the facts. Answering a question about the place of American technology in the world, like many FCC chiefs before him, Martin said he felt the U.S. was doing a good job of competing with the globe for things like broadband penetration, the quality of consumer electronics, and the overall health of the industry.

Never mind that the U.S. cell phone network is one of the slowest in the world, our broadband penetration rates lag most developed countries, or that the U.S. retail markets sometimes wait years for the latest devices to arrive from Japan and other countries, if they arrive at all.

At least that's what Martin seemed to have said. With all the mumbling, it was hard to know for sure.

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