Federal Communications Commission

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is an independent federal agency in the United States that is responsible directly to Congress. Established by the Communications Act of 1934, the FCC is charged with regulating interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable. Its jurisdiction covers the 50 states and territories, the District of Columbia, and U.S. possessions.

The FCC is directed by five commissioners appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for 5-year terms, except when filling an unexpired term. The President designates one of the commissioners to serve as chairman, who presides over all FCC meetings. The commissioners hold regular open and closed agenda meetings and special meetings.

By law, the FCC must hold at least one open meeting per month. It also may act between meetings by “circulation,” a procedure whereby a document is submitted to each commissioner individually for consideration and official action. Certain other functions are delegated to staff units and bureaus and to committees of the commissioners. The chairman coordinates and organizes the work of the FCC and represents the agency in legislative matters and in relations with other government departments and agencies.

At the staff level, the FCC comprises seven operating bureaus and 10 staff offices. Most issues considered by the FCC are developed by the bureaus and offices, which are organized by substantive area:

  • The Common Carrier Bureau handles domestic wireline telephony.
  • The Wireless Telecommunications Bureau oversees wireless services such as private radio, cellular telephone, personal communications service (PCS), and pagers.
  • The Cable Services Bureau regulates cable television and related services.
  • The International Bureau regulates international and satellite communications.
  • The Enforcement Bureau enforces the Communications Act, as well as the FCC’s rules, orders, and authorizations.
  • The Mass Media Bureau regulates AM and FM radio and television broadcast stations, as well as multipoint distribution (i.e., cable and satellite) and instructional television fixed services.
  • The Consumer Information Bureau communicates information to the public regarding FCC policies, programs, and activities. This bureau is also charged with overseeing disability mandates.

In addition, the FCC includes the following other offices:

  • The Office of Plans and Policy serves as the FCC’s chief economic policy advisor.
  • The Office of the General Counsel reviews legal issues and defends FCC actions in court.
  • The Office of the Managing Director manages the internal administration of the FCC.
  • The Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs coordinates FCC activities with other branches of government.
  • The Office of the Inspector General reviews FCC activities.
  • The Office of Communications Business Opportunities provides assistance to small businesses in the communications industry.
  • The Office of Engineering and Technology allocates spectrum for nongovernment use and provides expert advice on technical issues before the FCC.
  • The Office of Administrative Law Judges adjudicates disputes.
  • The Office of Workplace Diversity ensures equal employment opportunities within the FCC.
  • The Office of Media Relations informs the news media of FCC decisions and serves as the FCC’s main point of contact with the media.

In mid-1999, the FCC unveiled a 5-year restructuring plan that will enable it to better meet the fast-changing needs of the communications business. The plan eliminates unnecessary rules in areas where competition has emerged and reorganizes the FCC along functional rather than technological lines. The plan’s success hinges on thriving competition, enough to reduce the need for the FCC to regulate directly.

Under the plan, the FCC is making the transition from an industry regulator to a market facilitator. The plan addresses the disintegration of boundaries between wire, wireless, satellite, broadcast, and cable communications— categories around which the FCC is currently grouped. The internal bureaus are now grouped around functions such as licensing and competition rather than by technology.

The plan consolidates enforcement and consumer information into two separate bureaus of the FCC rather than having those functions spread across the agency. The plan has streamlined and speeded up the FCC’s services, for example, by instituting agency-wide electronic filing and automated licensing systems. Other goals include reducing backlog and making greater use of alternative dispute-resolution mechanisms.

The plan also makes it faster and easier for consumers to interact with the agency. Under the reorganization plan, the FCC keeps many of its existing priorities, such as protecting consumers from fraud and keeping phone rates affordable for the poor.

The top-down regulatory model of the industrial age is as out of place in today’s digital economy as the rotary telephone. As competition and convergence develop, the FCC must streamline its operations and continue to eliminate regulatory burdens.

However, despite the FCC’s planned reorganization from “regulator” to “facilitator,” the commission will still have to contend with a set of core functions that are not normally addressed by market forces. These core functions include universal service, consumer protection and information, enforcement and promotion of procompetition goals domestically and worldwide, and spectrum management.