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25th Anniversary of FCC Decision Enabling Wi-Fi and Bluetooth

25th Anniversary of FCC Decision Enabling Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
A series of posts describing how this all came about. (Click on picture above)

Monday, May 22, 2006

5/06 IEEE Spectrum Critique of FCC/Getting the Quality of Government You Deserve

The May issue of IEEE Spectrum, the flagship magazine of the (mainly US) electrical engineering society, has a rather blunt article critical of FCC policies which closes with a shot at FCC and Chairman Martin:

  • Of the four sitting commissioners on the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, two were trained as lawyers and two as historians. Of the seven members of France's ARCEP, however, three are graduates of the Ecole Polytechnique—France's near-est equivalent of MIT or Caltech—and a fourth has taught there.
  • Without belittling the impressive credentials of the FCC chairman, Kevin Martin, ARCEP Chairman Paul Champsaur arguably has more relevant qualifications, having run one of France's top research organizations. Other ARCEP members include a president of a college of mechanical and energy engineering; an "engineer in chief" of telecommunications; a general engineer in telecommunications; and a doctor of mathematics and economic sciences.

There is some truth to what it said. Indeed here are links for the bios of the current FCC commissioners:
But the FCC has a very wide jurisdiction ranging from telephone rates (with rural telephone rates being a major social and political issue), broadcast station ownership, broadcast content, e.g. indecency, some Internet issues, CATV, and spectrum issues. In the best of all worlds one could not expect most commissioners to be card carrying IEEE members with this portfolio of issues before the commission.

More telling is the fact that the commissioners have consistently failed to chose for their personal staff of 3 assistants, analogous to judges' clerks, any people with a specific background for technical communications policy issues. This can be seen from the staff biographies of the current commissioners:
Do you have to have a EE degree to do good technical policy work? No. Over the years the FCC commissioners have had a few outstanding lawyers on their staff with no formal technical background who had a great feel for technical issues. (Elliot Maxwell, Ken Robinson, and Dave Siddall come to mind.) But the overwhelming majority of the commissioners' assistants tasked with technical policy issues over the past 25 years have had no background in the area and never developed any insight into the technical issues. Remember, these people don't have to design radios or Internet systems, but they do have to ask the right questions and check whether the answers make any sense.

I am not advocating that some of these jobs be reserved for "card carrying IEEE members", something that the Society of Broadcast Engineers has sometimes advocated in the past. Indeed, many mainstream engineers lack the ability to integrate technical issues with policy, societal, and political issues - things not taught much in normal engineering curriculum. But given that Silicon Valley is a big force in today's economy, it seems strange that no FCC commissioner has ever hired as an assistant anyone with Silicon Valley experience.

But the real problem isn't the FCC commissioners. Abraham Lincoln once said, "People generally get the quality of government they deserve." The US high tech industry and its .com millionaires and billionaires participate actively in the political process but appear to accept this performance from the FCC. With the exception of Intel which appeared to promote a well qualified senior staffer for an FCC commissioner appointment last year, there are no signs that Silicon Valley is telling Washington that it wants an FCC that understands the high tech part of its jurisdiction and, at the very least, wants commissioners to have one staffer with some background or experience in the high tech industry.

"It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness"

What can reasonably be done? People have to speak up in responsible ways. Particularly people who make political donations.

  1. Urge the White House and future presidential candidates to consider as FCC nominees some people with real high tech industry experience.
  2. Urge representatives and senators to bring up at FCC oversight hearings the issue of commissioners' staff experience in technical policy areas.
  3. Urge senators to raise the issue at confirmation hearings for commissioners as this is the time when commissioners are most receptive to ideas. Nominee Robert M. McDowell has yet to be confirmed and Chairman Martin was recently renominated so these hearings might be good places to raise the issue.
  4. Urge IEEE and IEEE/USA leadership to make this a real issue for IEEE.
  5. Similarly, the high tech trade associations such as TIA and AEA should make this general reform part of their agendas also.

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