An independent agency of the federal government, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) oversees the television, radio and telephone industries in the United States. The FCC’s key responsibilities range from issuing operating licenses for radio and TV stations to maintaining decency standards designed to protect the public good. The commission is led by a five-member partisan board consisting of Republican and Democratic nominees selected by the President.
When Congress passed the Communications Act of 1934 (pdf), it abolished the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) and transferred jurisdiction over radio licensing to a new Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which took over the operations and precedents of the FRC. Concerned over the growing power of large corporations and conglomerates, the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt wanted the FCC to make sure the country’s budding mass communications systems did not fall into the hands of a select few.
In 1940 the FCC injected itself into the business affairs of the radio industry by issuing the “Report on Chain Broadcasting” and ordering the breakup of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), which ultimately led to the creation of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). The FCC also established precedents for how much air time networks could demand of affiliate stations and the time of day that network broadcasting could air. Previously a network could demand any time it wanted from an affiliate. The commission also did away with networks’ ability to serve as both agents and employees of artists who performed for radio programs on grounds that the situation posed a conflict of interest.
With the advent of television in the 1940s, the FCC became an important player in the development of this new medium. The commission issued licenses for new television stations to begin broadcasting—a responsibility that didn’t always go smoothly. After the end of World War II, the FCC assigned television stations to various cities and inadvertently placed many stations too close to each other, resulting in signal interference.
The FCC also helped shape the manner in which television stations delivered their signals, either through very high frequency (VHF) or ultra high frequency (UHF). Many earlier TV stations utilized VHF channels 2 through 13, but the commission soon realized that VHF alone was inadequate for nationwide television service. As a result, the FCC encouraged the licensing of stations that used UHF signals. In some cases, commissioners forced channels to switch from one frequency to another or ordered certain VHF channels off the air in smaller markets, like Peoria, Fresno, and Bakersfield, to create markets that were UHF “islands.” The development of color television was another important milestone that the FCC had to address, as was the newly emerging field of educational television, for which the commission established rules protecting its foothold in television markets against commercially driven programming.
The election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1981 accelerated an already on-going shift in the FCC towards a decidedly more market-oriented stance. A number of regulations felt to be outdated were removed, most controversially the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. Critics said the Fairness Doctrine did not extend to expanding communications technologies, and that the doctrine was limiting public debate.
Originally introduced in 1949, the Fairness Doctrine (also known as the Report on Editorializing by Broadcast Licensees) was applied on a case-by-case basis until 1967 when certain parts of the doctrine became part of the FCC’s regulations. The Fairness Doctrine required broadcast licensees to present issues of public importance, no matter how controversial, in a fair, balanced, and equitable manner. It was meant to diminish personal attacks and ensured equal time to respond to assertions made on air.
FCC Chairman Mark S. Fowler began to repeal parts of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, attempting to restore First Amendment rights he felt had been stripped away. This increased competition among broadcasters and paved the way for alternatives, such as cable television.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 followed the Justice Department’s antitrust suit against AT&T, which forced the company to break into smaller “Baby Bells.” The legislation tried to created more competition among local phone service providers by requiring Local Exchange Carriers to provide access to their facilities. It outlined regulations on obscene programming and removed many of the regulations limiting media ownership. This allowed greater consolidation among carriers and led to the development of the Internet, cable and wireless services.
During the current administration of President George W. Bush, the FCC shifted its focus to matters of obscenity and indecency, especially following Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during a Super Bowl halftime show in January 2004. President Bush signed the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005, which stiffened penalties for each violation of FCC rules, up to $325,000.
Although the FCC does not regulate the Internet, or Internet Service Providers, it has been instrumental in advancing VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) technology, which allows callers to make and receive calls using a broadband Internet connection instead of an analog phone line. In 2005, the FCC imposed 911 obligations on VoIP service providers, including the requirement that users had to be able to make and receive calls from the regular telephone network. This arose after some VoIP users had trouble reaching the 911 emergency network. VoIP service providers are also required to comply with the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (CALEA) and to support the Universal Service Fund, which supports assistance for income-eligible telephone subscribers.
In December 2007, the FCC approved rules that set new parameters on the size of the largest news and cable companies. One rule stipulated that no one cable company can control more than 30% of the market. The second rule moved toward industry deregulation by relaxing newspaper/broadcast cross ownership regulations. With newspapers suffering from diminished ad revenue due to Internet competition, the new rule provided more leeway for newspapers to purchase TV and radio stations in the nation’s top 20 markets. In 2008, the Senate voted to rescind the rule.
In 2009, with support of the Obama administration, the FCC proposed “net neutrality” rules designed to enforce mandates on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and wireless carriers to prevent discrimination against applications and content, ensuring equal treatment of all Internet traffic. The rules were fine-tuned in December 2010. In April 2011, House Republicans passed a bill to repeal the rules, and federal courts are hearing several legal challenges.
In July 2010, a federal appeals court struck down the FCC’s “indecency policy” that levied fines against TV networks whose programs including “fleeting expletives.” The ruling stated that the FCC rule was “unconstitutionally vague” and had “a chilling effect” on broadcast content.
In May 2011, the FCC launched a study into the controversy over the alleged “location tracking” capability of so-called smart phones, whereby popularly used cell phones—such as Apple’s iPhone—have been discovered to be storing location data for up to a year, even when location software was not in use.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is an independent government agency responsible for regulating the radio, television and phone industries. The FCC regulates all interstate communications, such as wire, satellite and cable, and international communications originating or terminating in the United States.
Leading the FCC are five commissioners appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for five-year terms. The President designates one of the commissioners to serve as chairperson. Only three commissioners may be members of the same political party, and none of them can have a financial interest in any commission-related business.
The FCC is organized into seven bureaus and ten staff offices. In general, the bureaus handle license applications and related filings, as well as analyzing complaints, developing and enacting regulations, conducting investigations and participating in hearings. The seven bureaus are:
Consumer & Governmental Affairs (CGB) oversees the FCC’s consumer policies, including disability access. It handles outreach and education through its Consumer Center, which responds to consumer questions and complaints. CGB also collaborates with state, local and tribal governments to ensure emergency preparedness.
Enforcement Bureau is responsible for enforcing the provisions of the Communications Act of 1934, as well as FCC rules, orders, terms and conditions of station authorizations. This bureau helps to foster local competition and consumer protection, public safety and homeland security.
International Bureau (IB) helps to develop international telecommunications policy on issues such as allocation of frequencies and minimizing electromagnetic interference. IB is responsible for maintaining FCC compliance with the International Radio Regulations and other international agreements.
Media Bureau develops and implements policy and licensing programs relating to electronic media, such as cable television, broadcast television and radio. Post-licensing for direct broadcast satellite services also falls within its purview.
Wireless Telecommunications Bureau is responsible for all FCC wireless telecommunications programs, policies and outreach programs. These services include amateur radio, cellular networks, pagers, personal Communications Service, Part 27 Wireless Communications Services and fixed, mobile and broadcast services in the 700 MHz band.
Wireline Competition Bureau (WCB) assists in policy development for wireline telecommunications (broadband) to promote growth and investments in infrastructure, development, markets and services.
Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau develops and implements communications for use during emergencies and crises. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, this bureau was added to make sure public safety, health, defense and emergency personnel, and consumers can communicate during times of greatest need.
Ten staff offices provide support for the bureaus. They are:
From the Web Site of the Federal Communications Commission
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) spent $647.5 million on 6,813 contractor transactions during the past decade. According to USASpending.gov, the FCC paid for a variety of services in support of its mandate, from automated information system design ($95.6 million) to systems engineering ($80.8 million) and ADP systems development ($53.3 million).
The top four contractors are as follows:
1. Computech $124,068,097
2. AAC Inc. $57,562,213
3. Computer Sciences Corp. $48,807,969
4. TeleTech Holdings Inc. $28,387,503
Computech, the FCC’s largest contractor over the last decade, is responsible for helping the FCC develop and implement Automated Auction Systems (AAS), which helped to choose licensees for electromagnetic spectrum awards. The FCC had previously relied on hearings and lotteries to select single licensees. But with AAS, the FCC used simultaneous competitive bidding and generated revenue for the U.S. Treasury. Users dialed in to a call center and used FCC software to place bids. As Internet use became more prevalent, this system was redone as a web application called the Integrated Spectrum Auction System (ISAS) and has resulted in more than 55,000 spectrum licenses, valued in excess of $50 billion.
FCC Study Suppressed
A former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) lawyer accused the commission of destroying a draft study that conflicted with the FCC’s earlier attempt to liberalize media ownership. The 2004 study reportedly showed that greater concentration of media ownership would hurt local TV news coverage.
The analysis showed local ownership of television stations added almost five and one-half minutes of total news to broadcasts and more than three minutes of “on-location” news. The conclusion was at odds with FCC arguments made when it voted in 2003 to increase the number of television stations a company could own in a single market.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California) was dismayed when she heard the news of the report and sent a letter to the FCC demanding to know what happened. Then-FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who was on the commission at the time that the report was written, said he knew nothing about it, nor did his staff.
Lawyer Says FCC Ordered Study Destroyed (by John Dunbar, Associated Press)
Spiked media-ownership study raises new concerns (Associated Press)
FCC probe finds no suppression of media-ownership report (Associated Press)
FCC Won’t Investigate Phone Companies Involved in NSA Wiretapping
Following the 2006 revelation that some of the largest phone companies in the United States had helped the Bush administration collect phone records illegally, the FCC was asked to look into the matter. The FCC’s response: No can do.
Citing the secretive nature of the National Security Agency, then-FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said, “The classified nature of the NSA’s activities make us unable to investigate the alleged violations” of privacy. Congressional Democrats were outraged by the commission’s unwillingness to get involved.
Rep. Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts), then the ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, said: “We can’t have a situation where the FCC, charged with enforcing the law, won’t even begin an investigation of apparent violations of the law because it predicts the Administration will roadblock any investigations citing national security. If the FCC initiates an investigation and gets blocked by the White House, then the White House is stonewalling. But if the FCC refuses to even demand answers, then the White House never has to block the enforcement agency from getting to the bottom of this. The American people deserve answers.”
Martin served on Bush’s election campaign and worked in the White House before joining the FCC.
NSA secrecy makes investigation impossible, FCC says (by William M. Welch, USA Today)
FCC Refuses to Investigate NSA Program, Predicting Likely Administration Road Blocks (Congressman Ed Markey Web Site)
Just Get Rid of the FCC
Unlike those who want to reshape FCC policies, some have argued that it’s time to just eliminate the commission altogether. CNET political correspondent Declan McCullagh argues that the FCC has failed time and time again to do the right thing and that it has outlived its usefulness.
McCullagh writes: “Consider some examples of bureaucratic malfeasance that the FCC, with the complicity of the US Congress, has committed. The FCC rejected long-distance telephone service competition in 1968, banned Americans from buying their own non-Bell telephones in 1956, dragged its feet in the 1970s when considering whether video telephones would be allowed and did not grant modern cellular telephone licenses until 1981—about four decades after Bell Labs invented the technology. Along the way, the FCC has preserved monopolistic practices that would have otherwise been illegal under antitrust law.”
Perspective: Why the FCC should die (by Declan McCullagh, CNet)
It may not be the catchiest of expressions, but “net neutrality” represents one of the most important issues affecting the Internet and communications in the 21st century. What it comes down to is whether the government can and should tell Internet service providers (ISPs) to charge all customers, big and small alike, the same amount of money, regardless of how much bandwidth they consume.
So far, the Federal Communications Commission has been unable to impose net neutrality on ISPs. When it did try, Comcast went to court and won its case. The court said the FCC lacked the authority to tell telecoms how to run their operations.
Those in favor of net neutrality want the FCC to force ISPs, especially large ones like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Time Warner, to not charge different rates based on the size of the content (such as video) being sent over the Internet. Advocates argue that net neutrality is about equal access to the Web, and that service providers should not be permitted to discriminate against competitors or content.
Opponents of net neutrality want a two-tiered system that would allow ISPs, including broadband providers, to charge a fee for faster service. They argue it is a fundamental part of doing business, that if you want better service for something, you have to pay more than for the basic standard. Charging more is essential, given the impact that video, image, and audio files have on Web communications, critics of net neutrality say.
4 Political Concepts Ruined by Their Boring Names (by David Wallechinsky, AllGov)
Court Rules Internet Providers Can Control User Traffic (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
AT&T Asks Employees and Their Families to Protest Net Neutrality (AllGov)
Concentrating Media Ownership
The FCC in 2003 approved controversial new rules allowing large media companies to expand their ownership of television and radio stations. The Republican-led commission, with Michael Powell at the helm, voted 3-2 to allow broadcast networks to own television stations that reach a combined 45% of the national audience, up from 35%. The FCC also voted to lift a ban that prevented a company from owning both a newspaper and a television or radio station, except in the smallest markets.
Democrats on the FCC board and Capitol Hill objected to the changes, as did consumer groups and some traditionally conservative voices. The Prometheus Radio Project, a low-power FM advocacy group, filed a lawsuit to stop the new rules from taking effect. The group was supported by a coalition of media reform organizations. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Prometheus Radio Project’s motion to stay the FCC rules, arguing that the changes were not in the public interest.
Also, Republicans and Democrats joined together in the U.S. Senate on a 55-40 vote to overturn the revised TV/newspaper cross ownership rule and the rule expanding a company's national TV household reach from 35% to 45%.
Following the backlash by the courts and the Senate, the FCC, under the leadership of Kevin Martin, declared it would continue to study the issue and possibly revive it at a later time. In December 2007, the FCC approved another set of rules to allow greater cross ownership of media sources. One rule stipulated that no one cable company can control more than 30% of the market. The second rule moved toward industry deregulation by relaxing newspaper/broadcast cross ownership regulations. With newspapers suffering from diminished ad revenue due to Internet competition, the new rule provided more leeway for newspapers to purchase TV and radio stations in the nation’s top 20 markets. In 2008, the Senate voted to rescind the rule.
Backed by television networks and large media companies, the FCC’s Republican appointees argued that the current FCC rules were “out-of-date relics” from a bygone era when most people had access to only three major networks and a handful of independent or public television stations. Today, with about 119 million households having access to dozens of channels with cable or satellite television service, not to mention access to the Internet, the media playing field is so broad that the proposed changes would not have the adverse effects that critics claimed. With so many TV, radio, and Web outlets, there would still be a great deal of media diversity to allow consumers to access a broad range of options and perspectives.
Furthermore, major broadcast networks argued that their businesses were only marginally profitable at best and that in order to compete with cable networks, they needed to own more of the profitable affiliates that carry their programming.
The Myth of Media Concentration: Why the FCC's Media Ownership Rules Are Unnecessary (by James Gattuso, Heritage Foundation)
Critics of the changes argued that they would stifle different voices from being heard on American airwaves. They point to the consolidation of ownership of radio stations after rules on ownership in that sector were modified as an example of what will happen under the new rules. Children Now argued that greater media concentration would have a serious negative impact on the availability and diversity of children’s programming.
Joining the chorus of left-leaning voices were such stalwart members of the right as conservative New York Times columnist William Safire and the National Rifle Association. Safire wrote, “The concentration of power—political, corporate, media, cultural—should be anathema to conservatives. The diffusion of power through local control, thereby encouraging individual participation, is the essence of federalism and the greatest expression of democracy,” wrote Safire. “That's why I march uncomfortably alongside CodePink Women for Peace and the National Rifle Association, between liberal Olympia Snowe and conservative Ted Stevens under the banner of ‘localism, competition and diversity of views.’”
The Great Media Gulp (by William Safire, New York Times)
Localism Debate Revives Fairness Doctrine
In the 24 years since the FCC did away with the Fairness Doctrine, some FCC watchers have called for new regulations by federal regulators to encourage more local programming on television stations. In December 2007, the FCC proposed new rules that could force broadcasters to offer more information on local content to win license renewals from the commission. New requirements include a minimum amount of local programming, maintaining a physical presence at each station and setting up permanent advisory boards for each renewal license.
Unlike the debate over media concentration, those supporting the FCC’s rules governing localism come from the left or non-partisan ranks, such as The Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, the Benton Foundation, New America Foundation, Media Access Project, United Church of Christ and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. They have supported the FCC requirements that would require closer evaluation of local content. Some also have urged the FCC to require broadcasters to disclose information regarding political advertisers and advertisement purchases on the Web.
Opposing the localism plan are broadcasters and conservatives. Broadcasters argue that the FCC is going too far in stepping up scrutiny of how much local content they air. Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) told then-FCC Chairman Kevin Martin in a letter that adopting the rules requiring community content-advisory boards and giving the commission regular reports on what stations are programming in a variety of categories would be a “stealth enactment of the Fairness Doctrine.” He also accused the commission of “proposing no less than a sweeping takeover by Washington bureaucrats of broadcast media.”
Also opposing the plan are Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, the Christian Coalition of America and Citizens United. “Imposing rules that would require broadcasters to provide a certain amount of programming produced locally, as well as to establish politically correct advisory boards to assist with determining programming content and to fill out all kinds of burdensome paperwork for government regulators to police, is bad public policy,” they wrote.
Supporters of conservative talk radio, especially Rush Limbaugh, have decried the localism effort as a scheme that could threaten such voices from being aired.
Broadcasters blast FCC localism proposals (by Matthew Lasar, Ars Technica)
Michael J. Copps (January 2009 - June 2009)
Kevin J. Martin (March 2005 - January 2009)
Michael Powell (January 22, 2001-March 17, 2005)
William Kennard (November 3, 1997-January 19, 2001)
Reed Hundt (November 29, 1993-November 3, 1997)
James Quello (February 5, 1993-November 28, 1993)
Alfred Sikes (August 8, 1989-January 19, 1993)
Dennis Patrick (April 18, 1987-August 7, 1989)
Mark Fowler (May 18, 1981-April 17, 1987)
Robert Lee (February 5, 1981-May 18, 1981)
Charles Ferris (October 17, 1977-February 4, 1981)
Richard Wiley (March 8, 1974-October 13, 1977)
Dean Burch (October 31, 1969-March 8, 1974)
Rosel Hyde (May 1, 1966-October 31, 1969)
E. William Henry (June 2, 1963-May 1, 1966)
Newton Minow (March 2, 1961-June 1, 1963)
Frederick Ford (March 15, 1960-March 1, 1961)
John Doerfer (July 1, 1957-March 10, 1960)
George McConnaughey (October 4, 1954-June 30, 1957)
Rosel Hyde (April 18, 1953-October 4, 1954)
Paul Walker (February 28, 1952-April 17, 1953)
Wayne Cox (December 29, 1947-February 21, 1952)
Paul Walker (November 3, 1947-December 28, 1947)
Charles Denny (February 26, 1946-October 31, 1946)
Paul Porter (December 21, 1944-February 25, 1946)
Ewell Jett (November 16, 1944-December 20, 1944)
James Lawrence Fly (September 1, 1939-November 13, 1944)
Frank McNinch (October 1, 1937-August 31, 1939)
Anning Prowell (March 9, 1935-July 23, 1937)
Eugene Sykes (July 11, 1934-March 8, 1935)
A longtime friend of Barack Obama, venture capitalist Julius Genachowski is expected to give the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) a direct line to the White House, something the agency has not had in many years. It is also expected that Genachowski will focus the FCC more on new Internet technologies than prvious agency chairmen have. Genachowski was confirmed by the Senate June 25, 2009.