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Busy days at the FCC


By Scott Bradner, Network World, 06/04/07


You can't say that the FCC does not earn its keep, at least if you go by policy announcements and commissionersŐ statements.


May was a very busy month at the FCC with 33 press announcements in 31 days. The month started out with a recommendation that the FCC stop throwing some of the Universal Service Fund money away quite so quickly. The month ended with eight announcements on May 31, six of which were substantive.


Here are a few of the month's activities:


* Worrying about the upcoming switch to all-digital TV. It seems that not enough people know their existing analog TVs will cease working on Feb. 17, 2009. In an apparently unrelated move, a few days later, the FCC extended compliance deadlines for more than 200 TV stations to be ready to broadcast digital TV.


* Accepting but not implementing a recommendation to put a cap on some of the more outrageous ripoffs of the Universal Service Fund that you and I help support. See this Honolulu Advertiser article for an example of the problem.


* Deciding to burden the cable companies further with additional requirements for them to assist their over-the-air competitors.


* Creating the processing and service rules for Broadcasting-Satellite Service (BSS) that will provide "a mix of local and domestic video, audio, data, video-on-demand, and multi-media services to U.S. consumers." Someday the Dish Network and Direct TV may get more competition.


* Tweaking rules about using the 800MHz band for public safety communications, mostly to give Sprint some guidance as to the meaning of the term "minimum necessary" when it comes to cost.


* Granting delays before two cable companies have to adhere to rules requiring support for standard set-top boxes.


* Selecting a patented technology for digital AM and FM radio broadcasts -- a good deal for the owner of the patents.


* Saying that blocking access to in-building wiring in multiunit buildings with Sheetrock is a no-no.


* Adopting the recommendations (including the requirement to have an emergency backup power source for all devices normally powered by the local power company) of a post-Hurricane Katrina panel to improve emergency response communications.


* Starting a process to require greater location accuracy for E911, including cell phones and interconnected VoIP in the requirements.


* Adopting a standard for communication on the emergency alert system that hardly mentions security. Watch for a proliferation of fake emergency notices if someone does not deal with the security vulnerabilities before the system gets widely deployed.


In addition, in late April the FCC adopted a report that basically said parents could not be trusted to decide what is good for their children and that government may have to do the job instead.


As a general rule, I have a healthy suspicion that most regulatorsŐ primary mission is to support the incumbent players (see "What are they good for?") and old business models (see "Is the FCC pining for the good old days?" and "Protecting against the Internet"). If the month of May is any guide, the FCC does understand there is a public whose needs should be considered (in the past this has often been in doubt), but the regulators still seem not to trust real competition (for example, the cable rules about carrying broadcast signals) or the public (for example, the report on parental controls). In any case, the FCC, via its rules, sure costs the United States far more than its $302 million budget.


Disclaimer: Harvard's budget is about 10 times that of the FCC but, in my opinion, it is a benefit rather than a cost to the United States. That noted, I know of no university opinion on the cost-benefit ratio of the FCC, so the above observation must be mine.


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