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Federal Communications Commission - Organization of the Commission, The Commissioners, The Offices, The Bureaus, Evolution of the Commission

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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is an independent regulatory agency that executes and enforces the provisions of the Communications Act of 1934 and its amendments. It has the statutory authority to create and execute administrative law such as rules, policies, and regulations. It also has the authority to investigate and penalize violators of these laws. Its jurisdiction covers interstate wire and wireless communication as well as international communication originating in or transmitted from the United States. It does not, however, regulate government communications.

The FCC is considered an independent agency because it does not fall directly under the executive branch of government. However, it is a “creature of Congress” in that the U.S. Congress created the agency through the Communications Act of 1934. Therefore, through legislation, Congress may alter or abolish the FCC if it so chooses. Congress also approves the selection of commissioners, appropriates the budget, and reauthorizes the existence of the FCC every two years.

The president of the United States also holds some influence over the FCC. For example, the president appoints the five FCC commissioners, subject to approval by Congress. The president may also take control of FCC-regulated media during wartime and national emergencies. Other government regulatory organizations that play a role in media regulation are the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is responsible for advertising and antitrust oversight, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which monitors compliance of affirmative action and equal employment laws. In concert with these agencies, the FCC regulates the communications industry to ensure that the public interest is being served.

Organization of the Commission

The FCC is organized into three levels. At the top level, five commissioners create and review regulation. Beneath the commissioners are the offices, which perform various managerial, service, and auxiliary functions. At the third level, six bureaus develop and implement regulatory programs, process license applications, conduct investigations, and hear citizen comments and complaints. These levels cover the breadth of telecommunication and facilitate the commission’s operation as an independent agency.

The Commissioners

With the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate, the president of the United States appoints five commissioners, choosing one as chairman. These commissioners hold five-year fixed terms, which are staggered so that not all five positions will be vacant at once. The commissioners must be U.S. citizens and must not hold a financial interest in any industry that the FCC regulates. Also, no more than three commissioners may be from the same political party, although all may hold the same philosophies. Each commissioner selects a small personal staff that will leave when the commissioner leaves office. The chairman is allowed a larger personal staff and serves as chief executive of the commission.

The chairman presides over the commission meetings, which must be held at least once a month. Usually, the commissioners meet weekly, and they submit documents to each other for approval between meeting times, a process called circulation. The commissioners also go before Congress to request operating funds and reauthorization. However, the chairman may also serve as the sole representative of the FCC before Congress and other entities in various matters.

The Offices

The Office of Inspector General was created by the Inspector General Amendments Act of 1988. This office ensures that the FCC operates internally in an efficient, effective, and legal fashion. It initiates internal audits and investigations of programs or operations in response to complaints, and it keeps the commissioners and Congress informed of any problems at the agency.

The Office of Managing Director is the primary operations manager of the agency. It creates and executes managerial and administrative policies, and it provides direction to the offices and bureaus underneath it. It is the central link in the organization of the FCC.

The Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs serves as the FCC’s liaison to Congress and other governmental organizations. In addition to informing others about FCC decisions, the office prepares FCC responses to legislative proposals and feedback. The Office of Media Relations performs similar tasks in dealing with the news media, and it also manages the website of the FCC.

The Office of Plans and Policy advises the commission on economic and technical matters. It develops long-term policy planning, conducts research, and manages the budget for research funded by the FCC. The Office of the Secretary also keeps records, except that its focus is in managing the movement of documents filed through electronic and paper-based systems.

The Office of Workplace Diversity is the principal adviser to the commission on issues such as workplace diversity, affirmative action, and equal employment opportunity. It trains and counsels employees on fair treatment, and it also develops and implements programs that encourage fair treatment, affirmative recruitment, and understanding and acceptance of diversity in the work-place. The Office of Communications Business Opportunities counsels the commission on diversity in the national landscape, advising on issues and policies concerning female and minority ownership of communication businesses. In addition, the office represents small-business interests in all FCC rule-making proceedings.

The Office of Administrative Law Judges and the Office of General Counsel serve as the legal arm of the FCC. The Office of Administrative Law Judges houses the judges who preside over hearings and issue adjudicatory decisions that are reviewed by the commissioners. The Office of General Counsel advises the FCC on legal matters, represents the commission before the courts, recommends decisions in adjudicatory cases, and provides insight on promoting competition and deregulation in the marketplace.

The final office is the Office of Engineering and Technology. This office is the primary manager of the nongovernmental use of the electromagnetic spectrum. It advises the FCC on technical matters, the allocation of frequencies, and new technologies. The office also establishes technical standards for operating stations. In short, the Office of Engineering and Technology provides scientific leadership and guidelines on which the technological backbone of electronic media is built.

The Bureaus

There are seven FCC bureaus: (1) the Cable Services Bureau, (2) the Common Carrier Bureau, (3) the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, (4) the International Bureau, (5) the Mass Media Bureau, (6) the Enforcement Bureau, and (7) the Consumer Information Bureau. Each of these bureaus covers a distinct area of FCC responsibility.

The Cable Services Bureau, established in 1993, was formed to execute and enforce the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992. It promotes competition in local markets and between multichannel program distributors and monitors the deployment of new cable technologies. The Cable Services Bureau also monitors trends and developments in the cable industry. It evaluates compliance to such mandates as broadcast signal carriage, program access, and potential cable interference with over-the-air signal reception capability. In addition, the bureau resolves issues concerning cable franchise agreements and related fees.

The Common Carrier Bureau oversees common carriers such as telephony and cellular telephony. The bureau licenses transmission circuits, assigns frequencies, and approves construction for new common-carrier operations. It also regulates the practices and charges of interstate and international communication carriers such as long-distance telephone companies. Related to the regulation of practices, the bureau receives applications for mergers and dictates proper accounting practices for common carriers.

The Wireless Telecommunications Bureau is similar to the Common Carrier Bureau in that it regulates radio-wave communication that serves the needs of businesses, individuals, governmental entities, and nonprofit organizations. These communications include private microwave, private land mobile, marine and aviation, amateur, cellular, paging, and personal communications service (PCS) transmissions. The bureau ensures that these and other wireless telecommunication service providers comply with the Communications Act of 1934 and FCC regulations.

The International Bureau, established in 1994, regulates all FCC international communications and satellite programs. Its functions include the regulation of rates, the development of standards, international safety measures, and space-and earth-station communications. The bureau also represents the commission in international matters and oversees the domestic implementation of relevant treaties and agreements between the United States and other countries.

Perhaps the most familiar bureau is the Mass Media Bureau, which regulates radio and television broadcasting. It assigns frequencies, call letters, and licenses to applicants. It also ensures that licensees are in compliance with the current rules and provisions of the Communications Act of 1934, the FCC, and other federal laws. In the event of noncompliance, the bureau is authorized to investigate and ultimately issue sanctions.

The Enforcement Bureau is charged with improving the effectiveness of the enforcement measures of the various laws. Established in 1999, it joins the enforcement forces of the various bureaus and acts on potential violations of the Communications Act of 1934 and FCC rules, regulations, and orders.

The Consumer Information Bureau, the official liaison to the general public, handles all consumer inquiries and complaints.

Evolution of the Commission

The FCC grew out of the Federal Radio Commission (FRC), which was created by the Radio Act of 1927. The FRC, a five-member commission, began with a limited and temporary role— the U.S. Department of Commerce maintained most of the regulatory responsibility for the communication industry. The original intent of the FRC was to solve growing station interference problems, set standard broadcast bands, and reduce the total number of operating stations within one year. This, however, was not accomplished, and the FRC became permanent in 1929.

In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to create a single agency with broad authority over all nongovernmental communication. Consequently, Congress passed the Communications Act of 1934, which combined aspects of the FRC and the U.S. Department of Commerce and created the FCC as an independent regulatory agency that would have jurisdiction over all wire and wireless communication, both interstate and international.

The FCC derives its powers, duties, procedures, enforcement methods, and organizational setup from Titles I and V of the Communications Act of 1934, a blueprint that has changed little over time. For example, the number of commissioners has varied from five to three to seven, but a 1982 amendment set the number back at five. The only other significant change is that the commission, due to a 1981 amendment, is once again a temporary agency that must be reauthorized by Congress every two years. Other amendments have altered the rules, policies, regulations, and provisions that the FCC executes and enforces. However, the commission continues to function very much in the tradition that was established in 1934.

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