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FCC to get engineers?

Does anyone recall the days when you could name a genuine engineer at the FCC? No, I don’t mean politicians like Adelstein, Reed, Kennard and Genachowski. I mean a real FCC engineer — someone who knew a few of Kirchhoff's laws. Today, the term “law” at the FCC has nothing to do with physics.

In 1948, the FCC had 720 engineers on staff; today, it has fewer than 300. That represents a 62 percent reduction in technical staffing, even though the FCC is facing daunting technical issues.

The FCC has, for the most part, been led by politicians or bureaucrats. After all, one doesn’t get appointed to such a high Washington, D.C., position unless _______________. You fill in the blank. The bottom line is that this nation’s most technological-oriented governmental agency is led by lawyers, politicians and bureaucrats. Engineers need not apply.

I’m not saying that an attorney can’t be a good arbitrator and evaluator of facts. What is obvious is that matters before the FCC are increasingly technical. And, as engineers were oft to say, “RF doesn’t stop at a nation’s border.” No amount of legal skills can make the science of communications just go away. It makes sense to be sure that the agency making the rules about technology have the best scientific expertise available to the politicians that actually make the rules.

In about 1983 the Society of Broadcast Engineers’ executive committee tried to arrange a meeting with Rep. Ed Markey,D-MA. The goal was to solicit his support to require additional technical expertise on the commission. SBE committee members got only as far as the congressman’s outer lobby.

We did talk with a member of Markey’s staff for about five whole minutes. He was “very busy,” you know. Obviously the requested legislation went nowhere, and Markey probably never knew that the SBE officials even visited his office.

Fortunately, concern about the commission’s lack of staff technical expertise has recently been renewed.

Republican Olympia Snow, R-ME, and Ted Kaufman, D-DE, have introduced legislation that would charge the National Academy of Science to begin a two-year study of the FCC’s technical capacity, analyzing its staffing levels, recruiting and hiring efforts.

“It is critical that we include engineers in our nation’s technical policy and decision making at the FCC and across the government,” said Senator Kaufman. “Professionals in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics have always been our nation’s problem solvers. I am pleased that this study will explore the implications and offer recommendations for addressing the decline of engineers in this important agency.”

“With the rapid advancement of technologies and innovation within the telecommunications industry, the FCC must be better equipped and more agile to address the ever-changing technical landscape from a regulatory perspective,” said Senator Snow, a senior member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which has jurisdiction over the issue. “This legislation takes a step toward ensuring the commission has the adequate resources, which is essential in guaranteeing our nation’s technical leadership remains on the cutting edge of 21st century technology and ensuring we will successfully meet our nation’s future needs.”

Under the Snow-Kaufman legislation, the National Academy of Sciences study would conduct an examination of the FCC’s technical policy decision making, current technical personnel staffing levels, and agency recruiting and hiring processes of technical staff and engineers, and make concrete recommendations to improve these areas. The study would include proposals to streamline processes and rulemakings as well as how the FCC can be more competitive in hiring the required technical personnel to make it more effective. The bill authorizes $1 million over a two-year period to conduct this thorough technical study.

While on the surface all this sounds encouraging, it just strikes me as more than coincidental that the newly-expressed congressional concern comes at the same time the FCC is empire building. The commission’s plans include the desire to create a multibillion dollar R&D center, a $25 billion taxpayer-funded broadband program, and build and manage an entirely new $16 billion national public safety network. Oh, and that’s on top creating free broadband for everyone.

Perhaps if the commission had hired more engineers and fewer lawyers over the past few years, the hole these lawyers and bureaucrats continue to dig for us might not already be so deep.