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Federal Communications Commission


The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates interstate and foreign communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable television. The FCC oversees the development and operation of broadcast services and the provision of nationwide and worldwide telephone and telegraph services. It also oversees the use of communications for promoting the safety of life and property and for strengthening the national defense. The FCC maintains a comprehensive web site:

The FCC was created by the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C.A. § 151 et seq.) to regulate interstate and foreign communications by wire and radio in the public interest. The scope of its regulation includes radio and television broadcasting; telephone, telegraph, and cable television operation; two-way radio and radio operation; and satellite communication. The FCC is composed of five members who are appointed by the president. Only three of the commissioners may be members of the same political party at any given time. A review board and an office of general counsel assist the commission. In addition, administrative law judges conduct evidentiary adjudicatory hearings and write initial decisions. In January 2002, the FCC announced a major restructuring of several of its bureaus, reducing the number of bureaus from seven to six and renaming several of them.

Media Bureau

The Media Bureau combines the functions of the Mass Media and Cable Services Bureaus. The Mass Media Bureaus regulates the following services: amplitude modulation (AM), frequency modulation (FM), television, low-power television, translator, instructional television and related broadcast auxiliary, and directbroadcast satellite. The Media Bureau issues construction permits, operating licenses, and renewals or transfers of such broadcast licenses except for broadcast auxiliary services. The bureau also oversees compliance by broadcasters with statutes and FCC policies.

The division of the Media Bureau (formerly organized as the Cable Services Bureaus) develops, recommends, and administers policies and programs for the regulation of cable television systems. It advises the FCC on the development and regulation of cable television. Among its other responsibilities, the bureau investigates complaints from the public; coordinates with state and local authorities in matters involving cable television systems; and advises the public, other government agencies, and industry groups on cable television regulation and related matters.

Wireline Competition Bureau

The Common Carrier Bureau was renamed the Wireline Competition Bureau in 2002. This Bureau regulates interstate common carrier communications by telephone. Common carriers include companies, organizations, and individuals providing communications services to the public for hire, which must serve all who wish to use them at established rates. In providing interstate communications services, common carriers may employ landline wire or electrical or optical cable facilities.

Wireless Telecommunications Bureau

The Wireless Telecommunications Bureau administers all domestic commercial and private wireless telecommunications programs and policies. Commercial wireless services include cellular, paging, personal, specialized mobile radio, air-ground, and basic exchange telecommunications. Private wireless services include land mobile radio (including public safety, industrial, land transportation, and business), broadcast auxiliary, operational fixed microwave and point-to-point microwave, and special radio telecommunications. The Wireless Telecommunications Bureau also implements laws and treaties covering the use of radio for the safety of life and property at sea and in the air, and administers commercial and amateur radio operator programs.

International Bureau

The International Bureau manages all FCC international telecommunications and satellite programs and policies, and represents the FCC at international conferences, meetings, and negotiations. The International Bureau consists of three divisions: Telecommunications, Satellite and Radiocommunication, and Planning and Negotiations.

The Telecommunications Division develops and administers policies, rules, and procedures for the regulation of telecommunications facilities and services under section 214 of the Communications Act (47 U.S.C.A. § 153 et seq.) and Cable Landing License Act (47 U.S.C.A. § 34 et seq.). In addition, the division develops and administers regulatory assistance and training programs in conjunction with the administration's Global Information Infrastructure initiative.

The Satellite and Radiocommunication Division develops and administers policies, rules, standards, and procedures for licensing and regulating satellite and earth station facilities, both international and domestic.

The Planning and Negotiations Division represents the FCC in negotiations with Mexico, Canada, and other countries on international agreements that coordinate radio frequency assignments to prevent and resolve international radio interference involving U.S. licensees.

Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau

The Consumer Information Bureau was renamed the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau in 2002. This bureau is a one-stop-shopping place for information regarding FCC policies, programs and, activities. The Consumer Centers, located in Washington, D.C., and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, also help individuals file informal complaints on a variety of issues, including: slamming (switching services without customer approval or knowledge); cramming (unauthorized, misleading, or deceptive charges for services not requested or not received); and disability access. The Consumer Education Office (CEO) works with consumer organizations and government agencies concerned with FCC regulatory activities. CEO prepares informational materials and conducts forums to educate the public about important FCC regulatory programs and to solicit feedback on issues regulated by the commission. This office also arranges briefings and seminars for educational institutions, consumer organizations, and other interested groups. The Disability Rights Office (DRO) ensures that FCC actions and policies enable people with disabilities to have the same access as everyone else to telecommunications. DRO helps to implement mandates for nationwide telephone-relay services; access to telecommunications wireline and wireless products and services; televised emergency access; and closed captioning on television programming.

Office of Engineering and Technology

The Office of Engineering and Technology administers the Table of Frequency Allocations, which specifies the frequency ranges that various radio services may use. The office also administers the Experimental Radio Service and the Equipment Authorization Program. The Experimental Radio Service permits the public to experiment with new uses of radio frequencies. This allows the development of radio equipment and exploration of new radio techniques prior to licensing under other regulatory programs. The Equipment Authorization Program includes procedures for agency approval of radio equipment importation, marketing, and use.


Much of the investigative and enforcement work of the FCC is carried out by the commission's field staff. The Field Operations Bureau

has six regional offices and 35 field offices. It also operates a nationwide fleet of mobile radio direction-finding vehicles for technical enforcement purposes. The field staff detects radio violations and enforces rules and regulations. The radio spectrum is under continuous surveillance to detect unlicensed operation and activities or nonconforming transmissions, and to furnish radio bearings on ships and planes in distress. The Field Operations Bureau also administers public service programs aimed at educating FCC licensees, industry, and the general public to improve compliance with FCC rules and regulations.

Telecommunications Act of 1996

In a sweeping overhaul of the Communications Act of 1934, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (47 U.S.C.A. § 51 et seq.) in February 1996. The legislation was designed to deregulate the $500-billion-per-year telecommunications industry and to encourage competition, thus freeing telephone companies, broadcasters, and cable television operators to enter one another's markets in order to secure lower prices and higher-quality services for U.S. consumers. Critics of the legislation charged that it would increase the cost of cable TV and telephone service and would encourage monopolization of the media. Supporters of the legislation claimed that it would foster competition and make available new services such as advanced wireless communications, home banking, and interactive television. By 2002, both sides could claim that parts of their predictions had come true.

Critics of the act have noted that the cable television industry has gone through a steady stream of mergers and acquisitions, resulting in just a few major cable companies dominating the cable industry in the United States. Cable bills have steadily risen since the passage of the 1996 act. Advocates of deregulation point out that wireless communication has continued to grow in a competitive marketplace and that consumers have more choices and lower costs. As for radio, critics have charged that the relaxation of ownership rules by the FCC has resulted in the acquisition of many stations in one market by just one company. As a consequence, local programming has given way to national programming for entire radio chains.

The 1996 act contained provisions that went beyond deregulation to include restrictions on the distribution of indecent material. For example, Title V of the act, known as the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) (47 U.S.C.A. § 223(a)–(h)), forbade the transmission of indecent material over computer networks such as the internet unless steps were taken to keep the material away from children, and required that new television sets be equipped with an electronic block that would allow viewers to prevent children from viewing objectionable programming. In February 1996, two separate actions were filed in U.S. district court in Philadelphia challenging the constitutionality of the CDA. The first suit, ACLU v. Reno, No. Civ.A. 96-963, 1996 WL 65464 (E.D. Pa.), was filed by the american civil liberties union and 19 other plaintiffs. The second action, American Library Ass'n v. United States Department of Justice, No. Civ. A. 96-1458 (E.D. Pa.), was brought by the American Library Association and 26 other plaintiffs. The other plaintiffs in both actions included civil libertarians, computer businesses, online services, newspapers, and librarians.

The lawsuits were consolidated for hearing before a special three-judge panel, authorized under the CDA and consisting of two federal district court judges and the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction to prevent enforcement of the CDA pending the outcome of a trial of their lawsuit. They challenged section 223 of the CDA, which states, in part, that any person in interstate or foreign communications who "by means of a telecommunications device knowingly … makes, creates, or solicits and … initiates the transmission of … any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication which is obscene or indecent, knowing the recipient of the communication is under 18 years of age" may be fined or imprisoned. In addition, section 223 makes it a crime to use an "interactive computer service" to transmit to persons under 18 years of age any material that, in context, "depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs, regardless of whether the user of such service placed the call or initiated the communication." The plaintiffs argued that the CDA violates the first amendment because it bans a substantial category of protected speech from most parts of the Internet. The government responded that shielding minors from access to indecent materials is a compelling interest that justifies the restrictions imposed by the act.

The court noted that the CDA was not narrowly tailored to further the government's interest in protecting minors, noting that "it is either technologically impossible or economically prohibitive for many of the plaintiffs to comply with the CDA without seriously impeding their posting of online material which adults have a constitutional right to access." According to the court,

The Internet is a far more speech-enhancing medium than print…. Because it would necessarily affect the Internet itself, the CDA would necessarily reduce the speech available for adults on the medium. This is a constitutionally intolerable result….As the mostparticipatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from governmental intrusion. The court granted the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction to prevent enforcement of the disputed sections of the CDA pending trial (Reno, 929 F. Supp. 824 [E.D. Pa. 1996]).

In another lawsuit, Playboy Entertainment Group, owner of the Playboy cable television channels, challenged the act's requirement that cable companies block audio and video transmissions of sexually explicit programs. Section 561 of the act states, in part,

In providing sexually explicit adult programming or other programming that is indecent on any channel of its service primarily dedicated to sexually-oriented programming, a multichannel video programming distributor shall fully scramble or otherwise fully block the video and audio portion of such channel so that one not a subscriber to such channel or programming does not receive it.

In Playboy Entertainment Group v. United States, 918 F. Supp. 813 (D. Del. 1996), the district court issued a temporary restraining order blocking the enforcement of section 561. Playboy had argued that the blocking and time requirements imposed on cable operators violated the First Amendment and equal protection. When Playboy applied for an injunction, the same court dissolved the restraining order and upheld the law. On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed.

The pace of deregulation by the FCC continued through 2002, with the promise of more consolidation of companies in the cable, broadcast, radio, and telecommunications sectors.

further readings

U.S. Government Manual Website. Available online at <> (accessed November 10, 2003).


Censorship; Fairness Doctrine.

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Federal Communications Commission


FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION. As the radio spectrum became increasingly crowded during the mid-1920s, it became necessary to regulate its frequency allocations. The Post Office and Commerce Departments and the Interstate Commerce Commission had initiated some regulation, and in 1927, Congress created the Federal Radio Commission (FRC). Its purpose was to regulate all forms of interstate and foreign radio transmissions and communications. FRC roles included assigning the frequencies and power of each station and revoking a station's license when the station violated the Radio Act of 1927 or the Commission's guidelines.

On 19 June 1934, the Communications Act became the latest addition to Roosevelt's New Deal. Introduced for the purpose of regulating interstate and foreign commerce in communication by wire and radio, it created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The task before the FCC was to make available a rapid, efficient, national and worldwide wire and radio communication service.

Agency Structure

The FCC is an independent U.S. government agency with jurisdiction over communications in all the states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Originally intended to regulate only radio, telephone, and telegraph industries, today the agency is charged with regulating interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable. It is not that the agency exceeded its charter; rather, the Act's flexibility and a sympathetic Supreme Court have allowed the agency to regulate additional communication media and related industries as they develop. However, when these modifications became too complex, Congress stepped in and passed additional amendments and acts, such as the 1962 Communications Satellite Act, to guarantee that the FCC could keep up with the pace. Congress's changing views on regulation and the market found their way into the agency and its guidelines, as reflected in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

The agency is directed by five commissioners—appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate—and they serve five-year terms. To avoid political bias, only three commissioners can be members of the same political party, and none of them may have a financial interest in any FCC-related business. The chairperson, assigned by the president, is responsible for setting the agency's agenda and, with the aid of the executive director, of running the Commission. By 2002, the FCC had almost 2,000 full-time employees and an annual budget of $245,071,000, about 90 percent of which comes from fees paid by the regulated industries—not from taxpayers.

The FCC, with its seven bureaus and ten offices, has a functional division of labor. The bureaus deal with the main communications sectors—processing their licenses, conducting investigations, looking into complaints, developing and implementing regulatory programs, and taking part in hearings. The offices provide the bureaus with support services. The Cable Services Bureau, originally established in 1993 to implement the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992, ensures competition among cable and satellite companies and regulates the distribution of multi channel video programming. The Common Carrier Bureau is responsible for policies regarding long distance and local service telephone companies (called "common carriers"); its primary focus is affordable, efficient, national and worldwide telephone service. Similarly, the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau is responsible for the licensing, enforcement, and regulation of all wireless telecommunications, except satellite and broadcasting; these include cellular telephone, paging, personal communications services, and amateur radio services. It is also responsible for public safety and the efficient use of the frequency spectrum in these areas.

The Mass Media Bureau regulates over 25,000 broadcast stations throughout the United States (television, radio, translators, and boosters). A station found in violation of FCC rules may be asked to rectify the situation and pay a fine; in extreme cases the bureau may revoke a station's license or refuse to renew it. The International Bureau is responsible for worldwide communications. In addition to advising and representing the FCC on all international communication matters, the bureau is concerned with the development of efficient, available, and reliable domestic and international communications services and with administering the Commission's international telecommunications policies and obligations. The Consumer Information Bureau is the FCC's link to the public. It is also charged with overseeing disability mandates. Finally, the Enforcement Bureau is responsible for enforcing most of the provisions of the Communications Act as well as the Commission's rules, orders, and authorizations.

Industry Regulation

During its early days, radio industry practices demonstrated that regulating the spectrum was necessary. In 1926, a federal district court ruled in U.S. v. Zenith Radio Corp. et al. that the Commerce Department had no authority to establish radio regulations. Left to the forces of the market, stations decided to set their own frequencies and transmission power, thus crowding the spectrum and filling the airwaves with interference. Following that ruling and its negative effects on the industry, Congress passed the Radio Act, making a clear statement that the frequency spectrum was a public domain and that public broadcasting was a national interest. The 1934 Communications Act gave the FCC the power to regulate all wire and radio communication. This was later interpreted by the Supreme Court to include other industries, such as cable TV. (See U.S. v. Southwestern Cable Co. [1968].) Ever since, the FCC has been responsible for allocating all frequencies and making sure that one industry or station does not interfere with another.

While the FCC's emphasis during its first few decades was on securing the existence of communication services, since the mid-1970s, as the public has become more antagonistic toward "big government," the agency has initiated more deregulation than regulation. After various pieces of legislation in the 1980s and early 1990s, and some deregulation by the agency itself during this period, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the most significant piece of communications legislation since the Act of 1934. By lifting various limitations, such as cross and multiple ownership restrictions, the act opened all telecommunications markets to competition. While the Commission argues that competition will benefit the public, as more service providers and cheaper prices become available, consumer advocates maintain that it will only lead to mergers of communication corporations, creating media empires that will drive prices up and service quality down.

Content Regulation

The FCC faces a far more difficult job than other independent regulatory agencies, for it must regulate an industry as well as its content. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, and Title III of the Communications Act prohibits censorship by the FCC, yet the Commission and the courts have made it clear that speech may be limited when it does not serve the law's "public interest" requirement. "It was not that the speech of broadcasters was to be protected, as much as it was the right of the radio audience to be protected from certain forms of speech" (Creech, p. 68). This protection mainly refers to the broadcasting of obscene and indecent material; the former is completely prohibited, while the latter is only regulated.

Concerned about children's exposure to violent programming, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which required all TV sets with screens larger than 13 inches to be equipped with V-chip technology. When the chip is used with a voluntary TV rating system created by the television industry, this technology allows parents to program their TV sets to block programs that carry any sexual, violent, or other material they believe may be inappropriate for their children. A similar attempt to block such materials over the Internet was found to be unconstitutional in ACLU v. Reno (1996), when the court argued that the Internet deserves the broadest constitutional protection because it more closely resembles newspapers than a limited-spectrum broadcast.

Limitations placed on multiple ownership to promote diversity of ideas were relaxed in 1985 and significantly changed in 1992, as Congress favored promoting the availability of diverse views and information through the marketplace. Yet, even in an era of multiple ownership, stations must serve the needs of their own communities by covering local issues. While the FCC provided some guidance as to what it saw as adequate public service (in its 1960 Blue Book), it was always up to individual stations to determine how they could best serve their communities.

As part of that public service, the Communications Act forced any station allocated airtime to any political candidate to afford other candidates equal opportunities. Later, in Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC. (1969), the Supreme Court affirmed the "fairness doctrine," arguing that the right of the people to a marketplace of ideas has precedence over the rights of broadcasters. By 1985, however, in its Fairness Report, the Commission argued that diversity of opinion was being served by the multiplicity of voices in the marketplace. Following some criticism from the courts, the FCC abolished the doctrine in 1987.

It was Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter who argued in National Broadcasting Co. v. U.S. (1943) that Congress's lack of technical knowledge required it to delegate some of its legislative powers to the FCC. Today, as media content breaks its traditional borders (TV and radio broadcasting over the web, cell phones providing web content, digital radio transmissions via satellite) and as demand for more information and stations reaches new levels, Congress continues to lack the ability to keep up with technical advancements. Whether the FCC will be able to fill this void without being transformed into a semi-legislature for all communication issues remains to be seen.


Creech, Kenneth C. Electronic Media Law and Regulation. 3d ed. Boston: Focal, 2000.

Federal Communications Commission. FCC Handbook. Available from

Federal Communications Commission. The Public and Broadcasting. Available from

Lowi, Theodore J. The End of Liberalism: The Second Republic of the United States. 2d ed. New York: Norton, 1979.

Messere, Fritz. "Regulation." In Encyclopedia of Radio. Edited by Christopher H. Sterling. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2002.

Napoli, Philip. Foundations of Communication Policy: Principles and Process in the Regulation of Electronic Media. Creskill, N.J.: Hampton, 2001.


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Federal Communications Commission

Federal Communications Commission (FCC), independent executive agency of the U.S. government established in 1934 to regulate interstate and foreign communications in the public interest. The FCC is composed of five members, not more than four of whom may be members of the same political party, appointed by the president with the consent of the U.S. Senate. The commissioners are authorized to classify television and radio stations, to assign broadcasting frequencies, and to prescribe the nature of their service. The FCC has jurisdiction over standard, high-frequency, relay, international, television, and facsimile broadcasting stations and also has authority over experimental, amateur, coastal, aviation, strip, and emergency radio services; telegraph and interstate telephone companies; cellular telephone and paging systems; satellite facilities; and cable companies and Internet service providers. The commission is empowered to grant, revoke, renew, and modify broadcasting licenses. It superintended the relations between AT&T and its successor phone companies and later promoted competition between long-distance phone companies. In the 1990s the FCC was involved in battles over the regulation of both pricing and content in the cable television industry. With the rapid development of telecommunications technologies, particularly mobile communications systems, and the blurring of distinctions between cable television and local and long-distance telephone companies, the job of the FCC continues to become more complex.

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