Analysis of the

Federal Communications Commission by Fritz Messere



U.S. Regulatory Commission

The United States Federal Communications Commission, created by an act of Congress on 19 June 1934, merged the administrative responsibilities for regulating broadcasting and wired communications under the rubric of one agency. Created during "The New Deal" with the blessings of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the commission was given broad latitude to establish "a rapid, efficient, Nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communication service." On 11 July 1934 seven commissioners and 233 federal employees began the task of merging rules and procedures from the Federal Radio Commission, the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Postmaster General into one agency. The agency was organized into three divisions: Broadcast, Telegraph, and Telephone. Today, the agency employs approximately 2000 people and operates on a $245 million budget. It has extensive oversight responsibilities in new technologies such as wireless, satellite and microwave communications.

The Act of 1934 and Organization of the FCC

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is an independent regulatory government agency. It derives its powers to regulate various segments of the communications industries through the Communications Act of 1934. Congress appropriates money to fund the agency and its activities, though recently the FCC has raised revenues through an auction process for the frequency spectrum. The Act enumerates the powers and responsibilities of the agency and its commissioners. Government radio stations are exempt from FCC jurisdiction. The Communications Act is divided into titles and sections which describe various powers and concerns of the Commission.

Title I describes the administration, formation, and powers of the Federal Communications Commission. The 1934 Act called for a commission consisting of seven members, reduced to five in 1983, appointed by the president and approved by Senate. The president designates one member to serve as chairman. The chairman sets the agenda for the agency and appoints bureau and department heads. Commissioners serve for a period of five years. The president cannot appoint more than three members of one political party to the commission. Title I empowers the commission to create divisions or bureaus responsible for various specific work assigned.
Title II concerns common carrier regulation. Common carriers are communication companies that provide facilities for transmission but do not originate messages, such as telephone and microwave providers.The act limits FCC regulation to interstate and international common carriers, although a joint federal - state board coordinates regulation between the FCC and state regulatory commissions.

Title III of the act deals with broadcast station requirements. Many determinations regarding broadcasting regulations were made prior to 1934 by the Federal Radio Commission, and most provisions of the Radio Act of 1927 were subsumed into Title III of the 1934 Communications Act. Sections 303-307 define many of the powers given to the commission with respect to broadcasting. Other sections define limitations placed upon the commission. For example, section 326 within Title III prevents the commission from exercising censorship over broadcast stations. Provisions in the U.S. code also link to the Communications Act; for example, 18 U.S.C. 1464 bars individuals from uttering obscene or indecent language over a broadcast station. Section 312 mandates access to the airwaves for federal candidates. And, section 315, the Equal Time Rule, requires broadcasters to afford equal opportunity to candidates seeking political office, and previously included provisions for rebuttal of controversial viewpoint under the contested Fairness Doctrine. However, in October 2000, the Commission relaxed the political attack rules related to section 315.
Title V enumerates the powers of the commission to impose fines and forfeitures. Title VI describes provisions related the cable regulation. Title VII enumerates miscellaneous provisions and powers, including the power of the president to suspend licenses and transmission during times of war.

The 1934 Act has been amended considerably since its passage. Many of the alterations have been in response to the numerous technical changes in communications that have taken place during the FCC’s history, including the introduction of television, satellite and microwave communications, cable television, cellular telephone, digital broadcasting and PCS (personal communications) services. As a result of these and other developments, new responsibilities have been added to the commission’s charge. The Communications Satellite Act of 1962, for example, gave the FCC new authority for satellite regulation. The passage of the Cable Act of 1992 and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 required similar revisions to the 1934 Act. But the flexibility incorporated into the general provisions has allowed the agency to survive for nearly seventy years. In 1996 the passage of the Telecommunications Act provided a congressional mandate for the FCC to develop policies that would accelerate technological innovation and competition within various segments of the communication industry.

The FCC has broad oversight over all broadcasting regulation. The FCC licenses operators for a wide variety of services and has used auctions as a means of determining who would be awarded licenses. The commission enforces various requirements for wire and wireless communication through the promulgation of rules and regulations. Major issues can come before the entire commission at monthly meetings; less important issues are "circulated" among commissioners for action. Individuals or parties of interest can challenge the legitimacy of the regulations without affecting the validity or constitutionality of the act itself. The language of the act is general enough to serve as a framework for the commission to promulgate new rules and regulations related to a wide variety of technologies and services. Though the agency has broad discretion to determine areas of interest and regulatory concern, the court, in Quincy Cable TV, Inc. v. FCC, reminded the FCC of its requirements to issue rules based on supportable facts and knowledge.

Under Chairman Michael Powell, the Commission's six bureaus were reorganized under function titles. The newly formed Media Bureau, created in 2002, combines the functions of the Mass Media and Cable Bureaus together. The Media Bureau oversees licensing and regulation of broadcasting services and enforcement of provisions of the Cable Act of 1992. Telephone services are split between the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, which handles wireless and PCS services and the Wireline Competition Bureau that promulgates rules related to long-distance and other wireline services. The Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau provides linkage to consumers, states and other governmental organizations. The Enforcement Bureau overseas the Investigations and Hearings Division and resolves complaints related to implementation of regulations promulgated by the Commission. The International Bureau represents the Commission in matters related to satellite and international communication. The Field Operations Bureau carries out enforcement, engineering and public outreach programs for the commission. Ten offices within the FCC support the five bureaus. The Office of Engineering and Technology provides engineering expertise and knowledge to the commission and tests equipment for compliance with FCC standards. The Office of Plans and Policy acts like the commission think tank.

Analysis of the Federal Communications Commission - page two

Analysis of the Federal Communications Commission - page three

Further Readings for Understanding the FCC - page four

Link to The Federal Radio Commission Archives

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