FCC Getting a Net Makeover

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission today issued a five-year restructuring proposal to Congress that seeks to bring the regulatory bureaucracy into the Internet age. The agency says it wants to be a "one-stop digital shop" for quick and easy form-filing, decision-making and automated access to information.

The plan, entitled "A New FCC for the 21st Century," calls for the agency to redefine its mission to reflect the development of U.S. communications markets. Vigorous competition over the next five years will reduce the need for direct regulation, the FCC says. And just as the Internet and other new technologies have eroded the distinctions between different sectors of the communications industry, the FCC proposes a reorganization of its bureaus.

The plan comes months after Congress formally questioned all five FCC commissioners about whether the regulatory panel was reflecting changes mandated in the 1996 Telecom Act. At the time, FCC Chairman William Kennard announced his intentions to conduct public hearings and draw up a reorganization plan.

"With this plan, the FCC is meeting the challenge of reinventing itself to keep pace with the rapidly changing communications industry landscape," Kennard said in a prepared statement Thursday. "It will allow the FCC to enter the next century able to respond fully and quickly to emerging technologies and the inexorable movement from regulation to competition." Kennard was traveling in South Africa on business and was unavailable for comment.

Under the plan, the FCC's core functions will be threefold. It will ensure universal service for all Americans, protect consumers from abuses and provide information. In addition, it will enforce the laws and promote competitive markets domestically and worldwide. The agency will retain its management of the electromagnetic spectrum -- the nation's airwaves -- to protect the public interest.

FCC officials said in a briefing Thursday that over the next five years the agency will restructure its bureaus, which are now primarily based on the different industries that are regulated -- such as telephone, cable television, broadcasting and wireless. As the Internet and other technologies blurs some of the distinctions between these media, the plan calls for the FCC to be reorganized by function, such as enforcement and consumer protection.

Despite automating license and form processes, and other streamlining, officials say they will need the same staff and funding levels. This doesn't sit well with some observers.

"The boundaries are blurring. It's important for the FCC to make sure its structure reflects those boundaries," says A. Michael Noll, a telecommunications professor at the University of Southern California. "But if they believe in competition and less regulation, how come they're not scaling down?"

One of the FCC's most vocal critics in Congress, Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee, calls the plan "a good first step." But he plans to introduce reform legislation designed to rein in the FCC's authority over such areas as telecommunications mergers, mandating free airtime for political candidates and establishing microradio stations.

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