FCC bashing is easy, but not always justified
I’m not sure where I stand on reincarnation. It seems a bit far-fetched, but I suppose that in the event an omnipotent being truly is responsible for us, our planet and the universe through which we hurtle, then that being would be powerful enough to conjure something like reincarnation.
Having said that, I am much more certain that I was a salmon in a past life, or will be a salmon in a future life, because I am forever swimming against the current. Case in point: while it has grown increasingly popular to criticize the FCC, I write this week in praise of the commission.
When I covered the FCC over a three-year period for Telephony, another Primedia Business publication, I periodically wrote critically of the commission’s deliberate — read sloth-like — approach to policy decisions. Seemingly, evolution has played out at a faster clip than some of the commission’s proceedings, particularly over the past several years.
For example, the FCC took about 2-1/2 years to finalize its rules that govern when and how incumbent telephone companies must share their facilities with competitors, as mandated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. More recently, the commission took an enormous amount of time to craft its order that dictates the terms and conditions for alleviating interference in the 800 MHz band that plagues public-safety communications nationwide.
While I still would like to see the FCC move faster, I have had something of a change of heart. When contemplating why it takes the FCC so long to make decisions, it’s useful to consider the commission’s history. Congress created the FCC when it enacted the Communications Act of 1934. At the time, the FCC’s primary responsibility was to make sure broadcast radio stations met their obligations to air public-interest programming.
Congress presciently and wisely reasoned that broadcasters, if left to their own devices without the scrutiny of a watchdog organization, would eschew such programming — including news — for more lucrative fare. Congress’s intent was to ensure that the still-developing medium fulfilled its potential to inform as well as entertain. The FCC also was given the responsibility of ensuring basic telephone service for all Americans, regardless of where they lived.
Today, the FCC has a great deal more on its plate. And while it would be correct to point out that the commission staff is enormous, the ability to throw considerably more resources at challenges doesn’t necessarily extrapolate into finding faster solutions, because the issues before the commission in this era are incredibly complex with far-reaching implications. The FCC in the Michael Powell era has shown a tendency to avoid knee-jerk reactions in favor of thoroughly contemplated, well-reasoned and evenly balanced orders.
The 800 MHz saga is a good example. The FCC could have caved to the pressures put upon it by public safety and quickly and blindly adopted the so-called Consensus Plan when it was first floated by Nextel. Instead, the commission dug in, did its job, and in the end public safety got a much better deal. Similarly, the FCC fulfilled its obligations and gave serious consideration to Nextel’s challenge to the order — despite Verizon Wireless’s absurd contention that the commission and Nextel were engaged in clandestine and allegedly illegal post-order negotiations. In the end, the FCC fairly reduced Nextel’s cash contribution to fund the 800 MHz rebanding because the carrier was able to convince the commission that the formula used to value Nextel’s spectrum holdings was flawed.
I often am amused by baseball fans who sit in the stands or in taverns and venomously criticize players for their lack of proficiency. The reason I’m amused is that most baseball fans have never stood in a batter’s box when a rock-hard orb is zipping towards them at speeds generally between 80 and 90 miles per hour. (When facing a 90 mph heater, for example, a batter has less than a quarter second to decide whether to swing.) If they had, they would instinctively know that a baseball player’s job is incredibly difficult. Despite some recent censorship-related decisions that would make the Founding Fathers raise their eyebrows if they were still with us today, I think the same can be said for the FCC.
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P.S. From all of us at MRT, best wishes for a happy and prosperous new year.