A marriage made in 47 C.F.R.
Almost 20 years ago, I graduated from law school, packed everything I owned into a U-Haul, drove across the country from Missouri to Washington, DC, and started looking for a job with a telecommunications law firm. It took about nine months of courting, but eventually I was swept into the industry on the cellular wave, like a lot of then-young lawyers.
During the first few years, I mainly listened. I would visit the offices of FCC engineers and get them to answer my questions about propagation, dumb lawyers, dumber bureaucrats and dumbest politicians. I got to know and respect form processors, file room folks and a host of other workers at the FCC. And I privately shared their frustration with their jobs, while I tried to figure out what the heck I was doing.
Eventually, I got the hang of this job and began to dance with some lower-level politicians at the agency: branch chiefs, assistant bureau chiefs and (eventually) real, live commissioners. The higher toward the top floor that I ventured, the more time I invested in understanding this regulatory “creature.” Over time, I discovered that my future was tied to this living body called the FCC.
Over the years, we’ve grown comfortable together, the agency and me. Although it often is a marriage made in hell, the whole thing reminds me of a long episode of “The Honeymooners,” with me playing the role of Ralph (and sometimes Norton). The fights are the stuff of comedy, and the insults, jabs, and vein-popping invective keep it interesting. But the old gal and I continue on, and we probably will for a long time.
Marriage counseling needed
As with all marriages, ours (the FCC’s and mine) takes a lot of work. We often don’t see eye to “black” eye. The commissioners and staff think that I’m too critical, while I think they’re too controlling. I want them to help more with the kids, while they just want to play with their special friends. I believe that harmony is better than vanity, and I don’t care if we keep up with the neighbors. The list goes on.
If we were to go to marriage counseling, there are a lot of things that I would say to my “life partner.” For example:
c Just say it – What’s so hard about that? Instead, you bury your meanings in interpretations, legal precedent, outdated legislation and the vagaries of multiple reports and orders, rather than consolidating a body of rulemaking into a single document. Why? Can’t you just say what you mean and not make me guess?
c Make it work – You know, FCC, old girl, it would be really terrific if your vaunted theories worked in the real world. Let me give you a few facts for future efforts. First, all operators aren’t rich. Second, all equipment does not work with all other equipment. Third, changing frequencies, bandwidth, ERP, service area and a variety of other stuff that has to do with wireless communications can’t be done with the twist of a screwdriver. Fourth, the industry is not entirely concerned with the global marketplace; many operators are simply trying to pay their mortgages.
c Look away from the mirror – I know this might be hard to take, but it’s not all about you. Sometimes you have to look to see what the public needs, wants and can afford. You might want to check your processes, forms and electronic gizmos to see if they make the process better for your customers, not just for your staff and administrative functions. Sometimes a little customer service would be better than sewing drapes for another electronic window.
c Could you listen? – You simply don’t listen. People file comments, write letters and give suggestions, but their input rarely shows up in your decisions. Being a government agency is about being responsive to the needs of people, not publicly traded corporations alone. Try to listen more, even if you don’t always like what is being said.
c Please, don’t lie – You may call it a mistake or an omission or something else, but we all know it’s a lie. And you do it so often that I think that you’ve lost sight of the truth. Ask yourself whether you are spending a lot of time writing a decision so that it will hold up under scrutiny if it’s left to your own discretionary authority. If you have to keep relying on interpretations and discretion, then you are likely blowing smoke.
c Fix it – If you blow it, fix it. If a decision is found to be wrong, admit it, change it and try to repair whatever damage the original decision caused. As important as it is for you to be honest in the first instance, it is also important for you to be willing to accept responsibility when a decision was wrong. Remember, even the cheapest car has a reverse gear.
I could go on … and on … and on
But what’s the point? You’re gonna do what you’re gonna do, aren’t you? And I’m too invested in this relationship to just leave. Besides, there are too many people depending on me to try to talk a little sense into you. And, after all, it’s not all your fault.
Congress has historically underfunded you. Your household budget has never really kept up with the bills. You’ve had to cut corners, make excuses and go without. Now you’re trying to use computerized time-saving devices to do the cleaning and the cooking that you just can’t keep up with. But food from the microwave just isn’t as tasty as slow-roasted, and the results are tangible. The flavor that we sometimes call “the public interest” just isn’t there anymore, and the dishes are quick and bland.
I’m hoping our relationship will improve-not in speed or quantity, as much as in quality. It would be nice if we could talk again, without the need for intermediaries and judges. The world would be better if you would come out from behind the sofa and see what’s on the other side-a country filled with caring individuals who would like to get to know you better and to understand why you feel it necessary to always say, “Bigger is better.”
Baby, you ain’t the greatest
If we were actually “The Honeymooners,” Ed Norton would drop in and give us a much-needed laugh. But you’re not Alice, and I’m not Ralph. The only thing funny about this marriage is that the community property of spectrum is being given away to your rich relatives, who don’t need it, won’t make a profit by owning it and will only parade it to sell shares of stock to unwitting investors.
Funny, isn’t it? Or maybe it’s just sad. n