Regulating technology: Old man river … he don’t know nothin’
For all you folks who suffered through the droughts that burned up West Texas, here’s a story about the flipper side of the coin. Out here in the Northeast, it’s been wet. We haven’t had this much rain since some guy named Noah decided to try his hand at animal husbandry.
If you recall, this past winter, the Northeast was getting piles of snow, which is just rain with a better PR man. Anyway, the ground was already plenty soggy before the late spring rains started to fall and fall. This moisture fest caused flash flooding, slow flooding and general run-of-the-mill flooding, which is what happened when the creek near the FCC’s Licensing Division in Gettysburg, PA, decided that enough was enough.
You see, the creek washed over its banks, over the parking lot and down into the basement, aided by the circumstance of a basement door giving way under the water pressure. So, a few gazillion gallons of water poured into the FCC’s basement where records are kept. Although the entire effect of the flood’s devastation is unknown, the situation is made worse by the fact that the basement’s storage included records that were slated to be shipped to the federal government’s archives in Suitland, MD (a notoriously dry location), but that shipment was delayed.
So, what got wet? Among the records damaged are all the land mobile applications since Sept. 28, 1992; all common carrier microwave applications since March, 1992; all Marine applications since 1985; and many pending applications for both private and microwave licenses. What does it mean? The effect is difficult to judge, in both practical and legal terms.
In practical terms, the effect is problematic for the 800MHz grants. As the public has had an opportunity to study the FCC’s computerized grant of many SMR applications, it has become apparent that many were granted in error, and the errors are never more evident as when you’ve got the applications in your hand. A lot of sloppy preparation work remarkably led to lot of grants that relied on improper short-spacing and other deficiencies.
Fortunately, most of the deficiencies can be detected using the FCC’s computer records, but not always. So, the question remains, can a person challenge a grant of a license if he can’t produce a copy of the defective application? Can the FCC demand that the applicant show a copy of the filed application if the application is challenged? There is no obvious legal obligation to maintain such records, so the licensee may figure the FCC’s all wet for asking. I expect these cases will need to be decided one case at a time.
Perhaps of graver concern are the applications for microwave licenses that have not yet been granted. It isn’t clear how much of the data contained on the applications was used to create computer records, upon which the FCC could rely in eventually granting (or denying) the applications. If new applications have to be filed, who pays the cost of preparation? After all, most applicants do not see themselves as the commission’s insurance carrier, and the cost of microwave engineering ain’t cheap.
By the way, if you think that the employees at the FCC’s Gettysburg office are ready to put in the overtime or take up a collection to save the lost records, think again. Morale at the licensing division might be dipping lower than a lead application in the flood. Rumor has it that the bureau’s bean counters are contemplating laying off over half the staff at Gettysburg. It seems that Washington thinks that the Gettysburg staff is becoming outmoded by electronic filing. So while the records are “down-streaming,” the office is “down-sizing.”
This attitude is consistent with the many problems that proponents of private radio have had with FCC Washington (not FCC Gettysburg) over the last few years. By the decisions, both internal and published, it’s apparent that the policy makers don’t understand or appreciate the role of private radio. Too many of the policy gurus think private radio is an outmoded service, like a human application processor.
What the policy wonks can’t understand is why Joe’s Towing Service would rather put up its own base station, rather than simply take cellular or ESMR or PCS service. So, to help these confused bureaucrats understand, let’s all say it together–ready? MONEY! You see, Ms. Wireless Wonk, Joe has no desire to have automatic hand-off, interconnection, mobile data, enhanced global positioning satellite service, intelligent vehicles with smart cards or any form of TDMA, CDMA, spread spectrum, interactive, programmable, optical, video or single sideband. He just wants the drivers to hear the dispatcher within a few miles of his garage. Got it, now? Joe just wants to communicate–simply and cheaply. The last time I checked the records that didn’t float away, there were about three million Joes out there with private radio licenses.
Now, I might be old-fashioned and ready for the bone yard, but I’m a lot like Joe. I don’t require a lot of computerized glitz. When I file an application with the FCC, I expect that somewhere along the line, a human will look at it. They’ll see if I got mustard on it, because I filled it out during lunch. Some guy will wonder if that’s my signature or if someone inked an eel and set it on the page. Most important, I’ll expect a human being to notice if my competitor’s application is improperly prepared and should be chucked out the door. That’s what I’ve come to expect, and I like it.
A computerized application bouncer just isn’t the same. No computer could write the return notices that I’ve gotten over the years. Some are snippy. Some appear filled with hope. Some notices make you feel entirely stupid and direct you to do those things that you’ve done a million times before, but you forgot this once. All of them obviously came from a human, even if all they did was check a box marked, “Please resubmit employing waterproof ink,” signed on behalf of Commodore Fishel.
Maybe a part of my ire about this down-sizing stuff comes from being a former teamster. Local 688 wouldn’t have taken this stuff. A strike would have been called, and we would have been sitting out in front of the Licensing Division with the 50-gallon drum fires burning and our “Unfair” signs raised. I wonder if the FCC staff at Gettysburg will do the same. After all, Gettysburg has a lot of experience with pickets.