Who is the FCC anyway?

They’re a bunch of unelected bureaucrats who control every device you want to own. If that doesn’t make them seem like evil overlords, it’s hard to know what will. Seriously though, the FCC is the US government agency tasked with approving and licensing anything that puts out any sort of electronic signal. Basically, everything.

A little bit more about them

The FCC has been around since the early days of radio. It is not a lawmaking group — that’s Congress — and it’s actually a fairly small agency. The commissioners who oversee the operation are appointed by the US President.

FCC stands for “Federal Communications Commission.” That says a lot. They are an independent agency that reports to Congress, but not technically part of the legislative branch of the government. They can create “orders” which have much of the force of laws but they don’t have the same authority.

There are five commissioners which are confirmed by the US Senate. Below them are Bureaus, each headed by a bureau chief. The commissioners set the rules, and the bureaus do the tough work of figuring out how to get those rules enforced.

In the pre-cable days…

Until the 1970s or so, the FCC didn’t have a lot to do. They regulated radio and television, kept the phone company (in most cases there was only one company) in line and probably played a lot of golf. Yeah, that’s a pretty harsh. Truth is they were probably busy but didn’t have as much staff.

Then things started to get interesting. In addition to home computers and that sort of device, all of a sudden there were microwave ovens and other non-techie things putting out a lot of radiation. The FCC stepped in to legislate that too.

The FCC got really busy toward the end of the 20th century. First they dipped into pagers (remember those?) and cell phones, then all sorts of things like wireless mice, remote controls, GPS’s, pretty much everything you put a battery into.

The FCC does not “regulate” technically, since they don’t make laws. They “administer.” They set rules for how you can broadcast, what you can broadcast, and at the end of it all, pretty much who can do the broadcasting. They issue license to every TV station and radio station as well as anything else that puts out a signal. If your remote, microwave, Bluetooth, or other device has an “FCC ID” on it, that’s a license.

For those companies that don’t follow the rules, the FCC can levy fines. Probably the most public case of this happening was in the last decade when CBS was fined for showing the somewhat naked Janet Jackson during the Super Bowl. If you don’t pay the fines, you lose your license.

Are the FCC the bad guys?

The FCC gets a lot of negative publicity because they don’t always make common-sense decisions. Rather than forcing all cell carriers to use the same technology (which would mean you could walk into any store with your cell phone and activate it) they let the carriers decide. They picked standards for HDTV, HD Radio and satellite radio that aren’t any better… except that they are patented so anyone who makes one of those things has to pay a royalty. Still, the FCC gets picked on pretty much the same by both sides so they are probably doing a fair job.

It’s a tough position to be in and they certainly do make mistakes sometimes. But for the most part they do things right and they always try to interpret the challenges they have in a new way. For example, the FCC is currently allowing broadcasters to test NextGen TV (also known as ATSC 3.0) even though there are no TVs that can get the signals. This rule change would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. However, over-the-air TV is now part of a whole landscape that includes pay TV and streaming, so they feel like this is the right move.

Who heads the FCC?

Every five years or so, the FCC gets a new chairperson. The current head of the FCC is Ajit Pai, who has certainly seen his share of scandals. As an attorney with past ties to Sinclair Broadcast Group and who worked for Verizon, people perceive him as very friendly to big businesses. It might surprise some people to hear but he his nomination to the FCC came from President Obama. Mr. Pai is a Republican.

Mr. Pai gets a lot of flak from the media. A lot of times, he’s drinking from the gigantic coffee mug you see in the picture above. This may be one of the least harmful of the several scandals that he has been part of. Mr. Pai is in a position like his which has so much impact on regular folks. Someone’s not going to like him. I won’t support him, nor will I criticize him, because I’ve never walked so much as a foot in his shoes.

If you want to get really down and dirty about the FCC, read the more informational but less entertaining Wikipedia article.

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 6,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.