Federal Communications Commission

Fact Box

Federal Communications Commission

Formed on June 19, 1934
Preceding departments- Federal Radio Commission
Headquarters- Washington, D.C.
Chairman- Julius Genachowski
Employees (2012)- 1,720 
Annual budget (2014) $339.8 million
Website- fcc.gov

An independent agency of the federal government, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) oversees the television, radio and telephone industries in the United States. The FCC’s key responsibilities range from issuing operating licenses for radio and TV stations to maintaining decency standards designed to protect the public good. The commission is led by a five-member partisan board consisting of Republican and Democratic nominees selected by the President.


When Congress passed the Communications Act of 1934 , it abolished the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) and transferred jurisdiction over radio licensing to a new Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which took over the operations and precedents of the FRC. Concerned over the growing power of large corporations and conglomerates, the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt wanted the FCC to make sure the country’s budding mass communications systems did not fall into the hands of a select few.

In 1940 the FCC injected itself into the business affairs of the radio industry by issuing the “Report on Chain Broadcasting” and ordering the breakup of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), which ultimately led to the creation of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). The FCC also established precedents for how much air time networks could demand of affiliate stations and the time of day that network broadcasting could air. Previously a network could demand any time it wanted from an affiliate. The commission also did away with networks’ ability to serve as both agents and employees of artists who performed for radio programs on grounds that the situation posed a conflict of interest.

With the advent of television in the 1940s, the FCC became an important player in the development of this new medium. The commission issued licenses for new television stations to begin broadcasting—a responsibility that didn’t always go smoothly. After the end of World War II, the FCC assigned television stations to various cities and inadvertently placed many stations too close to each other, resulting in signal interference.

The FCC also helped shape the manner in which television stations delivered their signals, either through very high frequency (VHF) or ultra high frequency (UHF). Many earlier TV stations utilized VHF channels 2 through 13, but the commission soon realized that VHF alone was inadequate for nationwide television service. As a result, the FCC encouraged the licensing of stations that used UHF signals. In some cases, commissioners forced channels to switch from one frequency to another or ordered certain VHF channels off the air in smaller markets, like Peoria, Fresno, and Bakersfield, to create markets that were UHF “islands.” The development of color television was another important milestone that the FCC had to address, as was the newly emerging field of educational television, for which the commission established rules protecting its foothold in television markets against commercially driven programming.

The election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1981 accelerated an already on-going shift in the FCC towards a decidedly more market-oriented stance. A number of regulations felt to be outdated were removed, most controversially the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. Critics said the Fairness Doctrine did not extend to expanding communications technologies, and that the doctrine was limiting public debate. 

Originally introduced in 1949, the Fairness Doctrine (also known as the Report on Editorializing by Broadcast Licensees) was applied on a case-by-case basis until 1967 when certain parts of the doctrine became part of the FCC’s regulations. The Fairness Doctrine required broadcast licensees to present issues of public importance, no matter how controversial, in a fair, balanced, and equitable manner. It was meant to diminish personal attacks and ensured equal time to respond to assertions made on air. 

FCC Chairman Mark S. Fowler began to repeal parts of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, attempting to restore First Amendment rights he felt had been stripped away. This increased competition among broadcasters and paved the way for alternatives, such as cable television. 

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 followed the Justice Department’s antitrust suit against AT&T, which forced the company to break into smaller “Baby Bells.” The legislation tried to create more competition among local phone service providers by requiring Local Exchange Carriers to provide access to their facilities. It outlined regulations on obscene programming and removed many of the regulations limiting media ownership. This allowed greater consolidation among carriers and led to the development of the Internet, cable and wireless services. 

During the administration of President George W. Bush, the FCC shifted its focus to matters of obscenity and indecency, especially following Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during a Super Bowl halftime show in January 2004. President Bush signed the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005, which stiffened penalties for each violation of FCC rules, up to $325,000.

Although the FCC does not regulate the Internet, or Internet Service Providers, it has been instrumental in advancing VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) technology, which allows callers to make and receive calls using a broadband Internet connection instead of an analog phone line. In 2005, the FCC imposed 911 obligations on VoIP service providers, including the requirement that users had to be able to make and receive calls from the regular telephone network. This arose after some VoIP users had trouble reaching the 911 emergency network. VoIP service providers are also required to comply with the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (CALEA) and to support the Universal Service Fund, which supports assistance for income-eligible telephone subscribers.

In December 2007, the FCC approved rules that set new parameters on the size of the largest news and cable companies. One rule stipulated that no one cable company can control more than 30% of the market. The second rule moved toward industry deregulation by relaxing newspaper/broadcast cross ownership regulations. With newspapers suffering from diminished ad revenue due to Internet competition, the new rule provided more leeway for newspapers to purchase TV and radio stations in the nation’s top 20 markets. In 2008, the Senate voted to rescind the rule.

In 2009, with support of the Obama administration, the FCC proposed “net neutrality” rules designed to enforce mandates on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and wireless carriers to prevent discrimination against applications and content, ensuring equal treatment of all Internet traffic. The rules were fine-tuned in December 2010. In April 2011, House Republicans passed a bill to repeal the rules, and federal courts are hearing several legal challenges.

In July 2010, a federal appeals court struck down the FCC’s “indecency policy” that levied fines against TV networks whose programs including “fleeting expletives.” The ruling stated that the FCC rule was “unconstitutionally vague” and had “a chilling effect” on broadcast content.

In May 2011, the FCC launched a study into the controversy over the alleged “location tracking” capability of so-called smart phones, whereby popularly used cell phones—such as Apple’s iPhone—have been discovered to be storing location data for up to a year, even when location software was not in use.

What it Does

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is an independent government agency responsible for regulating the radio, television and phone industries. The FCC regulates all interstate communications, such as wire, satellite and cable, and international communications originating or terminating in the United States. 

Leading the FCC are five commissioners appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for five-year terms. The President designates one of the commissioners to serve as chairperson. Only three commissioners may be members of the same political party, and none of them can have a financial interest in any commission-related business.

The FCC is organized into seven bureaus and ten staff offices. In general, the bureaus handle license applications and related filings, as well as analyzing complaints, developing and enacting regulations, conducting investigations and participating in hearings. The seven bureaus are:

Consumer & Governmental Affairs (CGB) oversees the FCC’s consumer policies, including disability access. It handles outreach and education through its Consumer Center, which responds to consumer questions and complaints. CGB also collaborates with state, local and tribal governments to ensure emergency preparedness.

Enforcement Bureau is responsible for enforcing the provisions of the Communications Act of 1934, as well as FCC rules, orders, terms and conditions of station authorizations. This bureau helps to foster local competition and consumer protection, public safety and homeland security.

International Bureau (IB) helps to develop international telecommunications policy on issues such as allocation of frequencies and minimizing electromagnetic interference. IB is responsible for maintaining FCC compliance with the International Radio Regulations and other international agreements. 

Media Bureau develops and implements policy and licensing programs relating to electronic media, such as cable television, broadcast television and radio. Post-licensing for direct broadcast satellite services also falls within its purview.

Wireless Telecommunications Bureau is responsible for all FCC wireless telecommunications programs, policies and outreach programs. These services include amateur radio, cellular networks, pagers, personal Communications Service, Part 27 Wireless Communications Services and fixed, mobile and broadcast services in the 700 MHz band. 

Wireline Competition Bureau (WCB) assists in policy development for wireline telecommunications (broadband) to promote growth and investments in infrastructure, development, markets and services.

Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau develops and implements communications for use during emergencies and crises. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, this bureau was added to make sure public safety, health, defense and emergency personnel, and consumers can communicate during times of greatest need.

FCC Offices

Ten staff offices provide support for the bureaus. They are:

  • Office of Administrative Law Judges conducts hearings ordered by the commission. The hearing function includes acting on interlocutory requests filed in the proceedings, such as petitions to intervene, petitions to enlarge issues and contested discovery requests. An administrative law judge, appointed under the Administrative Procedure Act, presides at the hearing during which documents and sworn testimony are received in evidence and witnesses are cross-examined. At the conclusion of the evidentiary phase of a proceeding, the presiding judge writes and issues an Initial Decision, which may be appealed to the commission.
  • Office of Communications Business Opportunities (OCBO) promotes telecommunications business opportunities for small, minority-owned and women-owned businesses. OCBO works with entrepreneurs, industry, public interest organizations, individuals and others to provide information about FCC policies, increase ownership and employment opportunities, foster a diversity of voices and viewpoints over the airwaves, and encourage participation in FCC proceedings.
  • Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) advises the FCC concerning engineering matters. Its chief role is to manage the electromagnetic spectrum, specifically frequency allocation and spectrum usage. OET conducts technical studies of advanced phases of terrestrial and space communications and administers FCC rules regarding radio devices, experimental radio services and industrial, scientific and medical equipment. OET also organizes the Technical Advisory Council, a committee of FCC advisors from major telecommunication and media corporations. In addition, the office operates the Equipment Authorization Branch, which is tasked with overseeing equipment authorization for all devices using the electromagnetic energy from 9 kHz to 300 GHz. OET maintains an electronic database of all certified equipment that can be easily accessed by the public.
  • Office of General Counsel serves as the FCC’s chief legal adviser. The general counsel also represents the commission in litigation in federal courts, recommends decisions in adjudicatory matters before the commission, assists the commission in its decision making capacity and performs a variety of legal functions regarding internal and other administrative matters.
  • Office of the Inspector General (OIG) recommends policies to prevent fraud in agency operations. The inspector general recommends corrective action where appropriate, referring criminal matters to the Department of Justice for potential prosecution.
  • Office of Legislative Affairs (OLA) is the FCC’s liaison to Congress, providing lawmakers with information about FCC regulations. OLA also prepares FCC witnesses for congressional hearings and helps create FCC responses to legislative proposals and congressional inquiries. In addition, OLA is a liaison to other federal agencies as well as state and local governments.
  • Office of the Managing Director is responsible for the administration and management of the FCC, including the agency’s budget, personnel, security, contracts and publications.
  • Office of Media Relations disseminates FCC announcements, orders, proceedings and other information per media requests. The office manages the FCC Daily Digest, web site and Audio Visual Center.
  • Office of Strategic Planning & Policy Analysis (OSP) is the FCC’s think tank that identifies policy objectives for the agency. It works closely with the FCC chairman and is responsible for monitoring the state of the communications industry to identify trends, issues and overall industry health. The office acts as expert consultants to the commission in areas of economic, business and market analysis. It also reviews legal trends and developments not necessarily related to current FCC proceedings, such as intellectual property law, the Internet, and electronic commerce.
  • Office of Workplace Diversity develops policy to provide a full and fair opportunity for all employees, regardless of non-merit factors such as race, religion, gender, color, age, disability, sexual orientation, or national origin.

Where Does the Money Go?

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) spent $647.5 million on 6,813 contractor transactions during the past decade. According to USASpending.gov, the FCC paid for a variety of services in support of its mandate, from automated information system design ($95.6 million) to systems engineering ($80.8 million) and ADP systems development ($53.3 million).

The top four contractors are as follows:

1. Computech                                                                                               $124,068,097

2. AAC Inc.                                                                                                    $57,562,213

3. Computer Sciences Corp.                                                                           $48,807,969

4. TeleTech Holdings Inc.                                                                               $28,387,503 


Computech, the FCC’s largest contractor over the last decade, is responsible for helping the FCC develop and implement Automated Auction Systems (AAS), which helped to choose licensees for electromagnetic spectrum awards. The FCC had previously relied on hearings and lotteries to select single licensees. But with AAS, the FCC used simultaneous competitive bidding and generated revenue for the U.S. Treasury. Users dialed in to a call center and used FCC software to place bids. As Internet use became more prevalent, this system was redone as a web application called the Integrated Spectrum Auction System (ISAS) and has resulted in more than 55,000 spectrum licenses, valued in excess of $50 billion.

Data on Federal Communications Commission
Historical and Estimated FTES (full-time equivalent) staff positions -- Source: Federal Communications Commission)

  • http://www.allgov.com/departments/independent-agencies/federal-communications-commission-fcc?agencyid=7325