The communications business, that is, the business of transferring information from one place to another, now accounts for half of the gross national product of the United States -- and that percentage is rising.
That figure, from a Commerce Department study, includes the cost of everything from the entire operation of a newspaper to the inter-of-fice communications system used by a private company like the Union Pacific Railroad. But the message is clear: Informatiion is power and everyone is doing everything he or she can to acquire the information needed to do a job as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The Federal Communications Commission is the government agency empowered to regulate the communications business, one that is changing so fast technologically that the market can't keep up.
The man charged with running the FCC is Charles D. Ferris. A Boston native educated at Boston University and the Harvard Business School, Ferris had been the highly respected counsel to House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill for 13 years prior to taking the FCC hot seat in October 1977.
In a recent wide-ranging interview, Ferris discussed some of the issues facing his commission, and his philosophy of regulation -- in an era when it has come under the most intense scrutiny.
"The communications business is fascinating," Ferris said. "The technology is moving faster than the marketplace. Today's technology becomes so obsolete so quickly that you don't have the marketeers in place fast enough to sell the type of service you can provide."
Ferris acknowledged that government regulation has had "the effect of impeding technology, at least from the standpoint of preventing new technology from being used to provide new services to the general public." But he defended such actions because "to allow new technology, like immediate satellite transmission of television signals... would have an unsettling and disrupting effect on the market-place, and the status quo of the existing technology that is in place."
The classic ecample is the FCC's role in regulating the cable television industry. The reason the FCC regulates cable at all is because if affects the television industry, which the FCC does regulate. "Our involvement in cable came from the perspective of how are we going to assure that the industry that is our prime regulatee is not affected," Ferris said.
"So there was a totally negative character to our regulation of that industry. Consequently, cable is a case where regulation has had a sigificant effect upon the development of types of services that could be provided."
Cable companies are barred, for example, from bringing in the signals of more than two television stations from outside the traditionsl market involved because of fears that local programming ultimately will be hurt or lost.
But Ferris believes that "to some degree our attitude toward cable is changing." He points to a huge industry economic study his staff s expected to camplete within the next pected to complete within the next two months "which will provide us with the basic factual data and economic data to five us an opportunity to look at the whole regulatory structure of cable vs. broadcasting and to help us finally decide what our regulatory role should be."
Ferris believes that significant changes are required in some areas, including the radio industry. "In 1941, there were approximately 700 or 800 radio stations in the U.S., 25 of which were FM stations," he said. "Now there are 8,000, and the rules we made early on to protect radio networks from becoming too powerful -- the chain broadcasting rules -- are useless, so a couple of years ago we did away with them. The marketplace has taken care of the problem, there is all sorts of diversity in the industry today." Ferris contends that, if you add the element of a strong public radio network, there is a good argument to be made against any regulation of radio today.
"It's interesting to look at television today because what is happening to television today is what happened to radio in 1941," Ferris said.
Ferris says he can see the day when every home will have its own little satellite-receiving station, and all television will come in via satellite.
"The technology exists to do that new," Ferris said. "I had one in my office about six months ago. I just wig gled it and directed out my window and picked up a signal from a Canadian satellite that was being sent to us for test purposes. It got a beautiful prcture on the television set right here in my office. That whole system, a Japanese antenna, 23 inches in diameter -- a little earth station -- costs about $250 with a converter for your regular television."
Still, the satellite station will not be a reality right away in the U.S. because, as Ferris says, "there are policy premises that it challenges, like the whole notion of local services and localism. If you have a satellite transmission from one point in the country, you don't have localism."
Another area regulated by the FCC is the telephone industry. Under license by the FCC, the American Telephone & Telegraph Co. has had a virtual monopoly on the telephone business in this country. But that is changing, and the Bell System, through a slow deregulation process, gradually is finding itself having to compete with one company after another to sell telephone services.
"Sere, we have a fantastic phone system," he said. "But the detractors of the Bell System say maybe it's too fantastic and we are paying too much for this fantactic capacity. So maybe the truth lies somewhere between the two." He syggested, for example, that there might be a market for a system that would allow different types of calls. More expensive calls that go right through, immediately. And cheaper calls, which mioght take longer to place.