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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)

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

FCC Website: The good, the bad, and the ugly

The FCC management is very proud of its website, it has even won some awards. But is the current FCC website really an effective communications tool with the public or is it a dumping ground for information and ocassional misinformation?

The FCC website has its roots in the mid 1980s "Mrs. Field's cookie" scandal at FCC. At that time the FCC docket files - a key part of policy development containing FCC proposals and comments from the public - were kept in a public reading room on the 2nd floor of 1919 M St., NW in large red and blue binders. The main users of these files, other than FCC staffers writing policy decisons, were paralegals from law firms who researched the filings for their bosses and made copies, as necessary, to take back to the office. The binders were kept "behind the counter" and one had to ask a clerk for them each day. Allegations were made at a congressional hearing that the file clerks were favoring certain law firms and paralegals in making the files available and that Mrs. Field's cookies, a new and expensive brand at the time, was the preferred currency for paralegals wanting better service. (I personally have no knowledge whether this was correct or not, but once it was said at a hearing it didn't really matter.) This allegation caused great embarassment to Chairman Fowler who ordered a crash project with little or no cost constraints to "solve the problem". The solution chosen was a dedicated digital imaging systems with multiple terminals on the same desks in the public reading room where paralegals had been looking at the red and blue folders. Incoming comments would be scanned into the imaging systems which would then provide access to, perhaps, 30 terminals.

8-10 years later when FCC jumped on the Information Highway the same basic system, now known as the Electronic Comment Fling System (ECFS), was linked to the Internet with little or no design change. It was designed for paralegals who were told what to look for and now tries to serve the public. Even though most documents are written on computer systems and available in machine readable form, the system allows submissions in either machine readable .pdf and .doc files or scanned/photographic .pdf files. The only indexing is a listing of comments by filing date. Attempts to search by filing organization/name are unreliable since the name might be repsented different ways. (For example, in Docket 04-186 the Association for Maximum Service Television, a key trade group, is identified in the index as "MSTV, Inc." in some places and "Maximum Service Television, Inc." in others making it difficult to find all their filings quickly. It is unclear whether such differences result from actions of FCC clerks or the inconsistency by the filing party. Note, by contrast, that all persons holding FCC licenses have to get a unique FRN - FCC registration number - even if they only renew their single license once every 10 years.)

There are no tools that allow searches over a set of comments for key words, which would be difficult to implement since many of the comments are images that aren't machine readable. At the time of the initial implementation, a friedn who managed a parallel system in another agency told me that the FCC's plans were obsolete even then. Indeed, in ECFS there are scanned versions of FCC documents which are not machine readable, for example, while in another totally independent FCC system, EDOCS, one can find machine readable versions of FCC-originated documents, for example. There is no incentive for filing parties to make their documents machine readable and they may prefer to make them difficult to use in order to increase the burden on opposing parties filing reply comments under short deadlines.

But suppose you have trouble remembering the 5 digit docket number, what do you do? There are no general tools to help you as both ECFS and EDOCS just assume you know these magic numbers. One bright spot is on the Office of Engineering and Technology's website where there this a helpful summary page of all the office's dockets with information about filing dates, a short title, the docket number, and a direct link to ECFS. Unfortunately, this only applies to OET's dockets and there are not similar tools for the whole agency.

By contrast, the Department of Transportation has a has a link on its site that gives a list of all open dockets. Clicking on a docket of interest takes one directly to the docket file with the public comments. FDA has a similar list of open dockets although reaching the comments is not as easy as in the DOT case.

Ever notice how hard it is to find things in general on the FCC website? I believe that basic reason is lack of leadership in managing the website. The poor webmaster is pushed around by many high ranking people who all want their pet project to get top billing. as a result the web page is so cluttered that nothing is easy to find. I recently did a survey of some agency home pages, which is presented below with data of the number of words, characters, and links on the agency's top home page.

Agency #Words/#Characters/#Links (on top page of website)

Federal Communications Commission 845/5642/176
Treasury Department 416/2396/67
Department of Commerce 203/1277/44
Department of Interior 633/3466/97
Department of Transportation 216/1287/52
Nuclear Regulatory Commission 268/1551 /48
Securities and Exchange Commission 185 /1190/72
Enviromental Protection Agency 950/5227/124
White House 4 57/2342/67

No other federal regulatory commisson clutters its top page with names and links for each of its commissoners. This lack of discipline then extends to everyone else wanting to clutter up the top page! One gets links to separate .doc and .pdf versions of statements of each commissioner on each major decision. Why links to .doc documents when other agencies excusively use .pdf? Probably it made sense 10 years ago and no one want to make a decison now. Do people really want to have to access each commission's statement separately? No, but no one wants to decide to group them.

Now the ugly part. For all this openness, some things are best not said. It appears that the Spectrum Policy Task Force was disestablished at some point about a year ago. Its link disappeared from the top page but is still there if you remember it. But clicking on this link creates more questions than answers.

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