One of these candidates is liable to keep enough voters awake through Election Day to get elected president. When that happens, I hope his first act is to do something about the Federal Communications Commission. Even compared to other federal regulatory agencies, the FCC is the pits. While the world of telecommunications is going wireless at a rapid clip, the FCC is squandering spectrum space on its hopeless digital television scheme and wasting time on misguided, archaic, populist notions like Low Power FM. Nearly half the LPFM applications are from California, which says something about the level of lunacy. Nevertheless, the FCC has put LPFM on the fast track, trying to head off a move in Congress to prohibit it.
Arguably, wired and wireless communications are important infrastructure components of our daily lives. It's been that way since the telegraph system, the original Internet, interconnected the country in the late 19th century. The telephone system followed, allowing normal folks, especially women at home, to communicate with each other.
Around a hundred years ago, telecommunications went wireless, fostering broadcasting. Because usable radio spectrum is finite and signals can interfere with each other, governments regulate the use of this valuable resource. In the US, that task fell first to the Navy, then the Department of Commerce, then the Federal Radio Commission. In 1932, Congress created the FCC to oversee interstate wired and wireless telecommunications.
One of the guiding principles of allocating radio and television channels has been localism, the notion that democracy is best served if many communities have their own broadcasting stations. Localism led to the establishment of local AM radio service throughout the US in the years after World War II. But this New Deal relic was subsequently corrupted to justify so many new channels in both the AM and FM bands that clear reception is now difficult. Isn't that what the FCC was created to prevent?
The most enticing opportunity in telecommunications today is the prospect of a wireless Internet. With an Internet receiver in my car, I could conceivably pick up radio stations from anywhere. They wouldn't even need a transmitter, an economic and technical boon to the public service and lunatic fringe groups who lobbied for LPFM. Establishing a cutting-edge wireless Internet, a priority in many European and Asian countries, seems like a worthwhile goal for US telecommunications policy.
Yet we have only half the spectrum we need to meet the demands of more modest wireless service in the next five years. That's because the FCC has given every TV station two channels, the current analog one and a new digital one, for the next ten to fifteen years to phase in the new technology. But no one is buying digital TV sets yet because there's not much to watch and the cable and satellite systems aren't passing through the few digital signals that exist. What a great plan!
A wireless Internet would be a complex project for the FCC with a detailed, lengthy timetable. Most commissioners, however, serve less than half of their five-year terms, preferring to land lucrative jobs representing clients before the FCC. The cynic would say that it's to their advantage to make short-term, complicated policies so they can make more money in the private sector trying to sort it out. For whatever reasons, the current FCC is doing a poor job at its central function as a spectrum traffic cop. The next president needs to deal with that issue pronto or within a generation Americans will be observing rather than leading the telecommunications revolution.