Reform at the FCC

FCC_New_LogoThe House recently passed by voice vote H.R 3675, the Federal Communications Commission Process (FCC) Reform Act of 2015. That’s a little surprising in that it often feels like this Congress never passes anything in recent years.

This act looks to improve the processes at the FCC. It should be noted that many of the items included in this act came from recommendations arising out of an internal self-assessment taken by the FCC on their own processes.

Over the years, like often happens at many regulatory agencies, processes get tweaked until they become somewhat dysfunctional. Little changes made each year are usually minor, but over the years these changes accumulate. In the FCC this has resulted in administrative rules that have been used to stretch out timelines and to delay decisions.

The Act would require the FCC to seek comments from the industry and then adopt rules that would:

  • set minimum comment periods for rulemaking proceedings,
  • allow time for public comment by eliminating the practice of placing large amounts of data into the record on the last day of the public comment period,
  • increase transparency regarding items before the commissioners,
  • require publication of the text of proposed rules, and
  • set timelines for FCC action on certain types of proceedings.

The bill would also require that the FCC:

  • Publish the text of items before they are voted on.
  • Create a searchable database for consumer complaints.
  • Publish more documents on the FCC’s website.
  • Potentially allow more than two commissioners to meet outside of the formal meetings without violating the Sunshine laws.

I find the bill interesting because there has been a quiet war between Congress and the FCC for a decade. Some congressmen have tried to largely defund the FCC several times due to not liking the policy positions they have taken on things like net neutrality. And more globally, the current pro-big business congress generally dislikes federal regulatory agencies of any kind.

But to someone who follows the FCC the proposed changes look very reasonable. I’ve always found it troublesome that the FCC could start major inquiries or rulemakings and then could conceivably never make a decision on a topic. So requiring firm timelines is probably good for the industry and good for the country. The major complaint that carriers have about regulators is the uncertainty that hangs over them whenever major changes are being contemplated.

And as someone who writes an industry blog, opening up the FCC complaints to the public sounds like a treasure trove. I am imagining the big piles of stories sitting there about carriers’ bad behavior just waiting to be turned into juicy headlines. And as somebody who occasionally makes an FCC complaint there now might be the chance that somebody might read one of them. I do have to wonder how they are going to stop parties from filing comments on the last day of a public comment period – the tool of procrastinators everywhere.

There are already some processes at the FCC that work pretty well. I love that the FCC must publish the minutes and show the public any documents that were given to them in ex parte meetings. But it would be even better if more of the process of deliberating big topics was made public. The big carriers all have swarms of lobbyists who know about everything going on at the FCC. But my smaller clients are often caught by surprise by FCC rulings and they’ve often wished that they would have had more of a chance to provide input to the deliberation process.

Overall this looks like a positive change, assuming that Congress actually gives the FCC enough money to do what they are being told to do.


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