In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Federal Communications Commission

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Origins and the Federal Radio Commission
  • Communications Act of 1934
  • FCC Development
  • Commissioners
  • Spectrum, Standards, and Licensing
  • Ownership
  • Content
  • Changing Technology
  • Deregulation
  • Related Agencies
  • Law Libraries

Communication Federal Communications Commission
Christopher H. Sterling
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0151


For eight decades, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been the primary federal agency regulating radio communication by licensing users of frequency spectrum. These include thousands of radio and television broadcast stations, among tens of thousands of other licensees of all types (including amateur or “ham” radio operators). The FCC deals primarily with technical and economic issues, and far less with communications (radio or TV program) content concerns. Under the provisions of the Communications Act of 1934 that created it, the commission is an independent regulatory agency, theoretically not a part of either the legislative or executive branches of the federal government. As Congress provides its budget, however, and the Senate must approve the president’s nominations of commissioners, in practice, the legislature holds more sway over FCC actions. The president’s designation of the agency chairman does provide some overall policy direction. As an independent agency, the commission undertakes executive, legislative, and judicial functions within its specific area of expertise. Any of its decisions, however, are subject to review (and potential reversal) by the federal courts, and oversight by relevant congressional committees. Under the same law, the FCC licenses services (such as broadcast stations) to use spectrum channels “in the public interest, convenience or necessity” (PICON). Though not specifically defined, the PICON phrase, which appears in several places in the law, developed from 19th-century railway laws that required railroads to obtain “certificates of convenience” to operate in the various states. Yet it has also issued many important decisions (such as its 1952 decision defining television allocations) that have stood the test of time. That the commission has survived eight decades says something about the foresight of the writers of the 1934 Communications Act that created it. Finally, the commission is really two things—legally, the five commissioners themselves, in whose names all decisions are issued. But practically, to speak of “the commission” also takes in the much larger and continuing professional staff, which consisted of about 2,000 people in 2013. The latter often acts on behalf of the former, as five political appointees could never deal with all the licensing and other details FCC rules require. This article reviews the highlights of the FCC (and its predecessor) and its myriad functions and topics of concern, with an emphasis on its role with electronic media (broadcasting, cable, etc.).

General Overviews

The best current information on FCC operations and policies is found on the agency’s own extensive website, as well as the many media and telecommunications trade publications and online services that report on what the commission is doing. While there are no textbooks focused only the FCC itself, the agency is discussed in virtually any book dealing with electronic media or telecommunications policy. After eight decades of operation, the commission has a fairly settled way of doing things. Until passage of federal “sunshine” laws in the 1970s, most of its meetings were held behind closed doors. That is no longer the case. Yet the FCC’s public meetings (which must, by law, be held at least once a month) have become political set pieces with prepared speeches by commissioners and rather rarely much debate. The real give-and-take of policymaking tends to take place (despite the sunshine rules) behind the scenes. Indeed, some have estimated that only a quarter of all FCC decisions are made and announced in public meetings—the rest are handled by shuttling (circulating) documents from commissioner to commissioner, with results issued only when a final decision is released. The commission must follow the requirements of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) of 1946 in carrying out its rules. Basically, this means providing ample opportunity for public participation, though in practice “public” usually means attorneys representing stakeholders. When it wants to create (or abolish) rules, it must issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) announcing its intention, and providing time for comment. If it is unsure of, say, how to approach a new technology or other situation, it may issue a Notice of Inquiry (NOI), which are essentially questions to guide public comment. In either case, when it moves to a final Report and Order (R&O) issuing the new rule or abandoning one, commissioners must make clear their reasoning and how it fits with the public interest requirement—and must deal with any public comments received. They can accept or reject any suggestions but cannot simply ignore them. The requirements of the APA can make this process a long one, even though much is now conducted online rather than with paper copies of documents. Most of what the FCC does day-to-day is handled by the staff of its seven main bureaus (consumer and governmental affairs, enforcement, international, media, public safety and homeland security, wireless communications, and wireline competition) where most of the day-to-day licensing and other decisions are made by professional staff acting under broad supervision from the chairman’s office. The chair appoints the bureau chiefs, with at least nominal agreement by other commissioners. He or she also appoints the heads of the ten other FCC operating offices (which include administrative law judges, commercial business opportunities, engineering and technology, general counsel, inspector general, legislative affairs, managing director, media relations, strategic planning and policy, and workplace diversity). The Benton Foundation headlines online service is free and a good way to survey FCC and other regulatory developments; Benz 2013 provides an industry (National Association of Broadcasters) view of current FCC rules and regulations; the Federal Communications Commission website is a huge repository of information with fairly good finding aids; Media Bureau 2008 includes the text of a booklet all broadcast stations should have on file—a useful public guide to the regulatory process and rules; the Federal Communications Commission Record 1987 provides the official source for all FCC decisions; the Code of Federal Regulation, Title 47: Telecommunications, revised annually, includes all FCC rules and regulations (and thus fills five volumes); the Federal Communications Law Journal has since 1937 published articles on all aspects of FCC regulation. Zarkin and Zarkin 2006 is a good place to start for those new to this subject area.

  • Benton Foundation.

    A free daily e-mail provides a survey of press coverage of FCC and other regulatory entities ranging widely across all media services and Internet issues. It includes some material from other countries as well.

  • Benz, Jean, ed. NAB Legal Guide to Broadcast Law and Regulation. 4th ed. New York: Focal, 2013.

    Guide for station managers and attorneys detailing the intricacies of FCC rules and regulations.

  • Code of Federal Regulation, Title 47: Telecommunications.

    Issued annually in print form, these volumes include all current FCC rules and regulations, arranged by topic.

  • Federal Communications Commission.

    This is the extensive commission website that includes probably thousands of pages of information on all aspects of its operation, including sections for each of its main divisions.

  • Federal Communications Commission Record. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1987-present.

    Continuing official FCC compilation of all of its decisions.

  • Federal Communications Law Journal.

    Published since 1937, three times a year, this is a primary source for scholarly and legal studies of FCC policies and decisions.

  • Media Bureau. “The Public and Broadcasting.” Washington, DC: Federal Communications Commission, 2008.

    The FCC’s guide to what it does concerning radio and television. It quickly becomes dated, but all stations must have a copy in their required public file.

  • Zarkin, Kimberly A., and Michael J. Zarkin. The Federal Communications Commission: Front Line in the Culture and Regulation Wars. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2006.

    A good place to begin as it provides an overview in outline form of the past and present FCC, with many selected important decisions concerning both media and telecommunications.

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