The author is chair of the Society of Broadcast Engineers’ Government Relations Committee and immediate past president of SBE.
One of the most persistent issues the Society of Broadcast Engineers has championed is the improvement in technical competence at the policymaking level of the Federal Communications Commission.
The SBE engaged in a dedicated legislative campaign starting in the 1980s to add a requirement to the Communications Act that one of the five FCC commissioners be an engineer. While well-intentioned, this objective in retrospect was a bit naive. In this scenario, the “technical” voice would always be in the minority.
Considering that the FCC commissioners meet only in their public sessions — though there is a reform measure pending in Congress that might change that — the impact of an engineer on the commission wouldn’t translate to an increase of technical competence. Furthermore, the goal was unachievable, as FCC commissioner appointments are highly political.
SBE’s Vinny Lopez, Barry Thomas, Ralph Hogan and Chris Imlay are shown during one of the society’s visits to Capitol Hill.
Last year, the SBE strongly supported and worked for passage of House and Senate bills that would have greater potential impact on the technical decision-making of all commissioners, regardless of their backgrounds.
Unfortunately, as so often happens, the congressional session ran out before the bill could pass — despite bipartisan support in both houses.
The bills have been introduced again as the FCC Technical Expertise Capacity Heightening (TECH) Act, Senate Bill S. 611 and House Bill H.R. 2102.
SBE President Vinny Lopez, Vice President Ralph Hogan, Executive Director John Poray, SBE Counsel Chris Imlay and I have visited with Senate and House staff working to gain sponsors, cosponsors and supporters for the bills. The society also has requested action from our members to support this important legislation.
In the course of that, and as part of my role as chair of the Government Relations Committee, I’ve discussed the issue with many members. Several of these friends have brought up excellent points worth discussing.
The question most often asked is, “The FCC has experienced and skilled engineers at its bureaus. If commissioners need technical direction, why don’t they just call them?”
Indeed; why don’t they? As a practical matter this is just not done. Aside from the social differences between the disciplines — which present a cultural chasm between lawyers and economists at the policy level, and engineers and scientists at the bureaus — the decision to engage a bureau-level engineer in a policy decision is left to the judgment of the commissioner and his or her staff.
As a result the bureaus are not part of the decision but are instead charged with “making the decision work” after the fact. Perhaps it’s simply that commissioners’ staffs simply don’t know that certain decisions have technical impact, or maybe they have the hubris to think they “know better” than engineers. I prefer to believe the former. Either way, the skill of the bureaus usually isn’t applied until too late.
As an analogy, consider how many times you have been faced with an obligation that a high-level radio station staff member has made, one that is well-nigh impossible. Maybe it’s a remote that the salesperson “simply had no idea would be a problem.” Had you been involved before the promise was made, you could have saved the station money, effort and maybe even a client. If someone had even mentioned the idea to you in the hallway, you could have sent up a warning flare or asked for detail so the idea could be researched.
That’s what we do; we see the unintended consequences and try and manage the risk. Having a policy-level engineer would help reduce instances like this, situations in which the FCC bureaus have to “make a decision work.”
This would happen in two ways.
First, an engineer or computer scientist likely will have a greater understanding of the applied consequences and will be better able independently to judge the veracity of technical claims, sometimes wildly optimistic ones, made by proponents.
A second and maybe more important consideration is that this staff-level engineer would be a vital conduit to the bureaus. The engineer is a better judge of issues that have an engineering impact when they are still at the planning stage. Even if a commissioner’s staff engineer doesn’t understand the issue directly, fluency and comfort with the technical disciplines will present an automatic common framework that can foster a more productive two-way relationship between the bureaus and commissioners’ offices.
Anyone who has worked with these engineers knows they are exceptional and skilled career professionals. When consulted, they are an asset to the decision-making process. Considering the level of skill, competence and ethics of the bureau staff, greater integration of their work at the policy level could be nothing but positive.
Several SBE members simply oppose any increase in government. In the current political and economic climate, increases in federal staff or cost may be unpopular.
There are a couple of issues to consider in response to that concern. Before the current FCC administration, there was a fairly large wave of retirement at the bureaus. Many of those people have not been replaced and may never be.
In one respect, adding a staff level engineer actually may be more than offset by the loss at the bureaus, meaning a net reduction in government size — but that’s an anecdotal response.
There’s valid research that supports the concept that adding this staff engineer wouldn’t have a negative impact on the federal budget. A revised Congressional Budget Office report from November found that the earlier versions of the bills, substantially identical to the current ones, would have an “insignificant” impact. The annual salary and overhead would cost approximately $1 million, with a gross cost of $7 million over a five-year period. Although the amount is small in governmental terms, that is still not what makes the cost “insignificant.”
The revised budget estimate states: “Under current law, the FCC is authorized to collect fees from the telecommunications industry sufficient to offset the cost of its regulatory programs. CBO has determined that the costs incurred under S. 2881 would be reimbursed through such fee collections. Therefore, CBO estimates that the net budgetary impact of S. 2881 would be insignificant. Pay-as-you-go procedures do not apply to this legislation because it would not affect direct spending or revenues.”
No more BPLs
Consider too that the FCC commissioners’ staff size has been unchanged since 1964 and the staff qualification requirements haven’t changed since 1982.
In contrast, during the past decades, the industries regulated by the FCC have exploded. The complexity of the issues and problems with which the FCC works now is staggering.
The sheer workload increase alone would require additional staff; now, considering the complexity of issues, a breadth of experiences and skills is required even to understand the issues put to the commission. The need is greater. Think about trying to run today’s radio station clusters without an IT person, or with the skill set that you had in 1982.
As a practical matter, managers hire based on comfort level and more often than not will surround themselves with the team they trust most, even if that team may not grasp all the issues fully. It’s more important that the team work together. Minimum staff requirements can push managers out of their comfort zone but serve to ensure competence in appropriate areas, as well as a social competence. The FCC certainly would gain not just in manpower, but in increased quality of decisions.
The issue of broadband over power lines is a great recent example of a monumental waste of time and money that could have been avoided by the injection of engineering expertise at the FCC decision-making level.
The idea made sense to the lawyers and economists, and there were many proponents who said it would work. The experienced staff in the bureaus knew it wouldn’t, but that message either didn’t make it to the policy level or just fell on deaf ears. In fact, the engineers’ warnings about the interference potential of this technology were scuttled by the commission.
Can you imagine five staff engineers for the FCC commissioners letting the idea of broadband over power lines go by unchallenged?
Represent and advocate
Finally, during an e-mail discussion, one of our members responded with a pragmatic if admittedly pessimistic view. I am quoting because I cannot state it better:
“Because the commissioners respond to political pressures and loyalties rather than the sound advice of the long-tenured bureau chiefs and staff counsel … your plan for engineers would fall into the exact same hole. Sound advice would be ignored.”
I understand the sentiment. We’ve been disappointed by the political vagaries of the FCC in the past.
But for the same reason, why should we vote? All politicians are self-interested. Perhaps we are being naive again, but it’s important not to give up on the system.
We are working toward a more capable and informed regulatory body, one that maximizes the resources available to the FCC and requires at least a working awareness of the technology that is being regulated. It is part of an engineer’s nature to make things better; and it’s an SBE core purpose to represent and advocate the interests of broadcast engineers. Working toward FCC improvement is an important part of that, the third in our board-ratified list of legislative goals. We have to believe that the system works. And with greater input by an engineer or scientist, the system will work better.
The SBE website has information available about these bills, along with legislative goals and efforts of the society. In support of the FCC TECH Act, we even have directories, sample letters and updates. We are asking everyone in our industries to join the society through their individual support. Contact your senators and request their support of S. 611 and your representatives and ask them to support H.R. 2102.
Barry Thomas, CPBE CBNT, is vice president of engineering for Lincoln Financial Media in Atlanta.