The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is an independent federal agency directly responsible to Congress. It was established by the Communications Act of 1934 ("1934 Act" or "the Act"). Congress has given the FCC express and expansive authority to regulate common carrier services, including landline telephony, radio transmissions, including broadcast television, radio and cellular telephony, and “cable services,” including cable television. The mission of the FCC is to ensure that the American people have available — at reasonable cost and without discrimination — rapid, efficient, nation- and world-wide communication services, whether by radio, television, wire, satellite, or cable.
Although the FCC has restructured over the past few years to better reflect the industry, it is still required to adhere to the statutory requirements of its governing legislation — the 1934 Act. The Act requires the FCC to regulate the various industry sectors differently. Some policymakers have been critical of the FCC and the manner in which it regulates various sectors of the telecommunications industry — telephone, cable television, radio and television broadcasting, and some aspects of the Internet. These policymakers, including some in Congress, have long called for varying degrees and types of reform to the FCC.
Most proposals fall into two categories: (1) procedural changes made within the FCC or through congressional action that would affect the agency’s operations or (2) substantive policy changes requiring congressional action that would affect how the agency regulates different services and industry sectors.
The FCC is directed by five Commissioners appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for five-year terms (except when filling an unexpired term). The President designates one of the Commissioners to serve as Chairperson. Only three Commissioners may be members of the same political party. None of them can have a financial interest in any Commission-related business.
The President designates one of the commissioners as chairman. The chairman derives authority from the provisions of the Communications Act and FCC rules which define the chairman's duties to include, among other things, presiding at all meetings and sessions of the commission, representing the commission in all matters relating to legislation and before other government offices, and generally organizing and coordinating the work of the Commission.
The day-to-day functions of the FCC are carried out by seven bureaus and 10 offices. The chairman also delegates management and administrative responsibilities, including IT, to FCC's Office of the Managing Director.
The current structure of the FCC was established in 2002 as part of the agency’s effort to better reflect the industries it regulates. The bureaus process applications for licenses and other filings, analyze complaints, conduct investigations, develop and implement regulatory programs, and participate in hearings, among other things. The offices provide support services. Bureaus and offices often collaborate when addressing FCC issues. Current FCC Bureaus include:
- Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau
- Enforcement Bureau
- International Bureau
- Media Bureau
- Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau
- Wireline Competition Bureau
- Wireless Telecommunications Bureau
The only FCC office that conducts regulatory proceedings is the Office of Engineering and Technology, which advises the FCC on engineering matters. However, the Office of Administrative Law Judges also conducts hearings and issues initial decisions.
Other offices are the Office of Communication Business Opportunities, Office of the General Counsel, Office of the Inspector General, Office of Legislative Affairs, Office of the Managing Director, Office of Media Relations, Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis, and Office of Workplace Diversity.
The FCC relies extensively on computerized systems to support its mission-related operations in addition to information security controls to protect agency data. The use of IT to implement the Commission's business operations is performed by the FCC's Information Technology Center which is organizationally placed within the Office of the Managing Director. Through its computer network and systems, the FCC collects and maintains non-public information, including proprietary information of businesses regulated by the Commission.
In an effort to meet federal information security requirements and address implementing guidance, the Managing Director established a cybersecurity program and delegated key information security responsibilities to the Commission's Chief Information Officer (CIO).
In September 2011, the FCC discovered that it had suffered a security breach on its agency network. FCC's actions to respond to the incident included, among other things, identifying and removing infected workstations and identifying significant factors that increased risk to its network. In November 2011, the FCC initiated the Enhanced Secured Network (ESN) project in order to continue its response to the incident, mitigate the risk to its information resources from the malicious software, reduce the risk of a successful future attack, and address weaknesses in its security controls and network architecture.
FCC Strategic Plan
In 2003, the FCC adopted a five-year strategic plan promoting six goals relating to broadband, competition, spectrum, media, homeland security, and FCC modernization. In September 2005, the FCC updated this plan with new descriptions of each goal and incorporating "public safety" into its homeland security goal. The latest status report on the strategic plan was presented at an FCC open meeting on January 17, 2008.
All Americans should have affordable access to robust and reliable broadband products and services. Regulatory policies must promote technological neutrality, competition, investment, and innovation to ensure that broadband service providers have sufficient incentive to develop and offer such products and services.
Competition in the provision of communications services, both domestically and overseas, supports the Nation’s economy. The competitive framework for communications services should foster innovation and offer consumers reliable, meaningful choice in affordable services.
Public safety and homeland security
Communications during emergencies and crises must be available for public safety, health, defense, and emergency personnel, as well as all consumers in need. The Nation's critical communications infrastructure must be reliable, interoperable, redundant, and rapidly restorable.
Health and safety
The FCC is also responsible for regulating the health and safety of RF exposure, including setting exposure limits for cellular communications. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 requires the FCC to evaluate the effects of its actions on the quality of the human environment, including human exposure to RF energy emitted by FCC-regulated transmitters, devices, and facilities, such as those related to 5G. The FCC sets standards intended to limit human exposure with technical input and collaboration from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency, and other federal health and safety agencies. The National Institutes of Health conducts research on the potential health effects of RF exposure.
The FCC shall strive to be a highly productive, adaptive, and innovative organization that maximizes the benefit to stakeholders, staff, and management from effective systems, processes, resources, and organizational culture.
One of the most significant issues facing the FCC is the evolution of the communications industry towards an all-digital, broadband world that has blurred the distinctions between services, also called “convergence.”
The FCC has restructured over the past few years to better reflect the realities of convergence, but the agency is still required to adhere to the statutory requirements of its governing legislation, the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Thus, while convergence has made distinguishing among types of data increasingly difficult, the FCC must continue to differentiate among services based on the distinctions drawn in the 1996 Act. Unfortunately, when all data looks the same and functionally similar services are provided by companies governed by different titles of the 1996 Act, questions of fairness and competitive advantage may arise. As newer technologies and services are developed and deployed, applying legacy regulations to them may begin to appear more strained.
The FCC has addressed two issues directly related to convergence during the 109th Congress: the proper regulatory classification of services via the Internet protocol (e.g., Voice over Internet Protocol VoIP) as well as law enforcement’s ability to conduct wiretaps effectively (i.e., using the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA). These issues are — and will continue to be — extremely important in reshaping the regulatory environment for telecommunications and information services.
The FCC also remains focused on broadband deployment. The agency continues to monitor its policies to encourage new providers to roll out new services (e.g., power companies will be deploying broadband over power line (BPL)) systems) as well as continue to promote deployment to underserved areas and populations, i.e., rural and low-income communities, through universal service and other programs (e.g., the E-Rate).
One of the difficulties in addressing the issues facing the FCC is that so many of them now intersect. So many of the broadband issues are inter-related that it is often difficult to sort out where one issue ends and another begins. For example, VoIP, CALEA, and BPL are all tied to the concept of broadband convergence and reliance on the Internet for information and it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to discuss one without touching on the others. Effectively addressing these types of issues may well be the greatest challenge facing both the FCC and Congress in the near future.
In September 2007, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a study, conducted in response to a congressional request, on the FCC's rulemaking process. Specifically, the GAO studied four rulemakings as case studies to determine the extent to which the FCC followed the steps for rulemakings required by law, including those related to public participation.
The GAO found that while the FCC generally followed the rulemaking process in the four case studies and most ex parte filings complied with FCC rules, several stakeholders had access to nonpublic information. For example, in discussions with some stakeholders that regularly participate in FCC rulemakings, multiple stakeholders generally knew when the Commission scheduled votes on proposed rules well before FCC notified the public, even though FCC rules prohibit disclosing this information outside of FCC. Other stakeholders said that they could not learn when rules were scheduled for a vote until FCC released the public meeting agenda, at which time FCC rules prohibit stakeholders from lobbying FCC. As a result, stakeholders with advance information about which rules are scheduled for a vote would know when it would be most effective to lobby FCC, while stakeholders without this information would not.
The GAO recommended that, to ensure a fair and transparent rulemaking process, the chairman of the FCC take steps to ensure equal access to information, particularly in regard to the disclosure of information about proposed rules that are scheduled to be considered by the Commission, by developing and maintaining (1) procedures to ensure that nonpublic information will not be disclosed and (2) a series of actions that will occur if the information is disclosed, such as referral to the Inspector General and providing the information to all stakeholders.
- Ch. 652, 48 Stat. 1064, as amended over the decades, 47 U.S.C. §151 et seq.
- Id. §201 et seq. (Title II of the Act).
- Id. §301 et seq. (Title III)
- Id. §521 et seq. (Title VI).
- The FCC Strategic Plans for FY2003-FY2008 and FY2006-FY2011 are available here. The Strategic Plans provide a good reference for the background, mission, and general goals of the FCC. The Strategic Plan also contains a more detailed breakdown and discussion of each of the objectives that comprise each goal.
- The presentations for this meeting are available here.
- FCC Strategic Plan, FY2006-FY2011, at 3.
- Id. For more information, see Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau.
- The FCC generally begins the rulemaking process by releasing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, or "NPRM," and establishing a docket to gather information submitted by the public or developed within the FCC to support the proposed rule. Outside parties are permitted to meet with FCC staff, but must file a disclosure in the docket, called an ex parte filing, that includes any new data or arguments presented at the meeting. Once the FCC staff has analyzed information in the docket and drafted a final rule, the Commissioners vote on whether to adopt it. The FCC chairman decides which rules the commission will consider and whether to adopt them by vote at a public meeting or by circulating them to each commissioner for approval. Stakeholders unsatisfied with a rule may file a petition for reconsideration with the commission or petition for review in federal court.