Authority for deciding who uses the radio frequency spectrum and for what purposes should not be given to an executive branch agency with a single administrator, members of the Federal Communications Commission told Congress yesterday.
Members of the FCC were the first witnesses at what promises to be extensive House Communications Subcommittee hearings on an omnibus proposal to overhaul radically the 44-year-old law governing regulation of interstate and foreign telecommunications, particularly by the FCC.
The FCC is responsible for allocating portions of the spectrum for communications purposes such as radio, television, microwave and satellite signals, and mobile voice contact for nongovernment use, while the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in the Commerce Department has spectrum allocation authority for government use.
The pending bill, introduced by subcommittee Chairman Lionel Van Deerlin (D-Calif.) and ranking Republican member Louis Frey Jr. (R-Fla.), would centralize the power of spectrum allocation in a single executive branch agency with a single administrator.
"The allocation of broadcast frequencies may be the commission's most important function," FCC Chairman Charles Ferris said yesterday. He said an independent multi-member agency's internal checks and balances, diversity of ideology, and relative insulation from political and economic pressures made it a logical place to assure that the power implicit in granting access to channels of communication isn't abused.
Ferris worried that the proposed change "could seriously erode mechanisms created by the Congress to insulate broadcasting from direct or indirect government control."
Like his colleagues, FFC member Joseph Fogarty agreed. Because spectrum allocation involves "such intensely competing private interests for such an extremely valuable government privilege, that process should not be left so completely to the discretion of a single executive branch administrator," he said.
That provision of the bill was the only one addressed so far that appeared to elicit a unanimous view from the six members of the seven-member agency who testified. Abbott Washburn told the subcommittee he believed the present regulatory structure is "sound" and "works reasonably well and feels there should be a "strong presumption in favor of retaining it. But most members seemed to support the basic idea behind the pending bill: that greater reliance on arketplace forces and reduced federal regulation is possible and desirable.
It is a direction in which the commission has been moving on its own over the recent past, it was noted.
However, several members strongly urged Congress to retain a "public interest" standard to guide remaining regulation, in addition to a new national policy that communications would be regulated "to the extent marketplace forces are deficient."
Tyrone Brown, the FCC's only black member, took sharp issue with the proposed elimination of the "public interest" standard when issuing broadcast licenses. "The bill would permit broadcasters to totally ignore discussion of controversial issues in their programming," he said. "The bill would permit a return to the disgraceful days when women and minorities were excluded from employment in the industry and therefore were largely excluded from programming decisions."
Because of the physical limitations of the broadcast spectrum, the government grants to some and denies to others "the opportunity to enter a very lucrative field," he said. "I believe operation of broadcast facilities consistent with the public interest is a very small price to pay for entry into this profitable field."
Brown told the subcommittee that, "as a black American," he had vivid recollections of his early experience "when virtually all the people I saw on television were white.
"With commission prodding, things have improved, but I for one would not want to rely solely on the altruism of broadcasters to air programming reflecting the world as it really is," he said.
In accordance with assurances that he was not wedded to specific provisions in the bill, Van Deerlin seemed open yesterday to a number of criticisms raised by the FCC members.
After Margita White, for instance, questioned the wisdom of replacing the current seven members named to seven-year terms with five members with 10-year nonrenewable terms, Van Deerlin told her her remarks "may send the staff back to the drawing boards" on parts of the proposed bill.