Why do we even need the FCC?

It seems like they’re in everything we want. The FCC has to review our phones, our tablets, our computers, our TVs and satellite equipment… take a look at your microwave for gosh sake and there is an FCC approval sticker on it. If you’ve been reading along on this blog, you know that didn’t even have a chairperson for the better part of a year. Yet, somehow we all survived. Why do we need this government agency sticking its noses in our lives?

Who are they anyway?

The Federal Communications Commission is an appointed group that overseas all policies regarding radio, telephone and other broadcasting devices. They set the rules and they make sure that everyone follows them. Back in the 1930s when the FCC was started this didn’t seem like such a big deal… it was basically radio back then. Today if it connects wirelessly or over any long distance the FCC has to know about it. If it puts out any sort of interference (on purpose or accidentally) the FCC has to know about it. That means all of our magical electronic gadgets belong to them, in one way or another.

The FCC approves devices to make sure they do what they are supposed to do, and don’t do what they aren’t. For example, your phone can’t interfere with military or police radios. Your tablet can’t cause planes to fall out of the sky (as if.) Your computer can’t scramble your TV reception, that sort of thing.

Here’s why they can do what they do

They have the right to do this because the radio spectrum is considered to be a “scarce public resource.” That means three things: (1) it’s not in limitless supply, everyone can’t do what they want with it; (2) it belongs to the people, like the national parks and the interstate highways, and (3) it’s something that we have to use responsibly. See, if we didn’t license broadcasters, if we didn’t make sure our stuff worked with all our other stuff, none of it would work. The FCC is supposed to make sure we’re safe that way. They’re the park rangers of the radio waves, put it that way.

It just so happens that everything we use today uses radio waves, and so everything we use today needs the FCC’s guiding hand. Simple as that. And oh, as for your microwave? You might not realize it but it’s actually cooking your food with radio waves, and that’s why the FCC is involved.

What if there were no FCC?

If the FCC didn’t exist, then there would be no way to stop one broadcaster from overlapping other broadcasts. I imagine there would probably be some way for everyone to work together, but it would be pretty messy every time some new technology came out.

Take cell phone signal boosters for example. When they first came out, there was only a basic level of FCC approval. These devices were certified, like microwaves, to only put out the signals they said they were putting out. But there was no understanding of what this new class of devices would do to the cell network.

Cell carriers claimed that boosters would destroy the network. They refused to honor the warranties of phones that used them. Some booster makers, like Wilson (parent of the weBoost, Wilson, Wi-Ex, and zBoost brands) were responsible. They made great products without FCC intervention. Other companies didn’t. It took about five years of back and forth. Eventually, the FCC, working with booster makers and cell carriers, brokered a deal. Now, everyone agrees that cell phone signal boosters are a great and safe addition to any building or vehicle. You can get one here, by the way.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.