It’s time to rethink the FCC’s purpose
When Congress created the FCC with the enactment of the Communications Act of 1934, the times were far simpler. The commission was created primarily to act as a watchdog to ensure that the fledgling commercial broadcast sector acted in the best interests of the public. There weren’t a lot of broadcasters back then, and the biggest concern was whether they would use their spectrum — a public trust — responsibly by generating a sufficient amount of news and public-affairs programming.
Today, the FCC has way too much on its plate. Even if it didn’t, today’s times are anything but simple, given the way in which technology has developed. It seems impossible for a single agency to keep up with it all — especially when things change so often, and so quickly. Consequently, it’s time for Congress to write a new communications act, one that limits the FCC to its original role of overseer of the commercial broadcasting realm, and creates two others: one that would oversee commercial telecommunications and a second that would drive public-safety communications into the future.
I wrote recently that Congress completely bungled the proposed initiative that would create a nationwide broadband network for first responders in the 700 MHz band by failing to designate an agency to take ownership of the project and by failing to fund it. I had suggested that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of the Department of Commerce and the president’s advisor on telecommunications, would be a good choice, because all of the pieces seem to be in place.
But after mulling this some more, I now think that NTIA has enough to do dealing with the Department of Defense. Also, those DOD ties would inherently create a conflict of interest for the NTIA in dealing with spectrum matters related to public safety.
Public-safety communications are so vitally important that the sector needs its own designated agency, one that would not only ensure that the 700 MHz network comes to fruition but also would look at first-responder communications holistically and create a roadmap to the future. The FCC is too busy smothering the brush fire of the day — actually several brush fires, given the scope of its authority — to spend much time contemplating what might be lurking over the next rise.
When it creates the new government entity that would oversee public-safety communications, Congress needs also to make sure it has the wherewithal to operate. It needs to write into the legislation a viable funding mechanism for the new agency and the nationwide network it would oversee. Yes, that means a new tax or two. So what? We can afford it. I went to a baseball game the other night. This late in the season, the game was meaningless. The cheapest seat in the stadium is $20. Yet, there were 30,000 tickets sold — in a bad economy. Yes, we can afford this.
I’d also suggest to Congress that it writes into this legislation real sanctions that would stop the nonsense that has plagued public-safety communications funding for too long. For instance, Congress should end the practice of diverting funds collected for wireless 911 to other purposes once and for all — perhaps by blocking federal highway funding from reaching any state that has engaged in the practice. I bet that would stop it pretty quick.
Regardless, the point is that public-safety communications are too vital to continue to be treated as the proverbial red-headed stepchild. In a post-9/11 world, we live in constant anticipation — if not fear — of the next terrorist attack on our soil. Even without that possibility, the world is a dangerous place. First responders need — and we need them to have — the best possible communications tools. But it’s not going to happen if the status quo remains. It’s time for today’s Congress to muster the vision demonstrated by their predecessors seven decades ago.
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