You are here

The History of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)

The Federal Communications Commission was established on June 19, 1934, to replace the outdated Federal Radio Commission. In its history, the FCC has been involved in some very controversial decisions. As communications expanded and television became more prominent, the FCC's duties were expanded to include regulating all forms of communication in the United States. The FCC helps to regulate content, award station charters, and monitor innovation to make sure that all forms of communication can co-exist. The FCC is also involved in regulating the Internet in the United States, and it has created regulations that have become the center of debate for the telecommunications industry, corporate users, and the millions of people in the United States who utilize the Internet every day.

How the FCC was Established

Regulating communications in the United States has been going on since the Radio Act of 1912. The military, emergency responders, police, and entertainment companies all wanted to be able to get their signals out over the airwaves to the right audiences without interference. The Radio Act of 1912 helped to establish a commission that would designate which airwaves would be for public use and which airwaves would be reserved for the various commercial users who needed them. In 1926, the Federal Radio Commission was established to help handle the growing complexities of the country's radio needs. In 1934, Congress passed the Communications Act, which replaced the Federal Radio Commission with the Federal Communications Commission. The Communications Act also put telephone communications under the FCC's control, which was a major change from the previous regulating structure that was in place. The FCC was also created to help break up some of the communications monopolies that had developed by 1934. The most notable monopoly that was broken up by the FCC was the National Broadcasting Company, which eventually spawned the American Broadcasting Company.

Important Decisions Made by the FCC

Throughout its history, the FCC has been at the middle of some very important and controversial decisions. In 1948, the FCC put a freeze on awarding new television station licenses because the fast pace of licensing prior to 1948 had created conflicts with the signals. Initially, the freeze was only supposed to last a few months. But the FCC did not start granting new television station licenses again until late in 1952.

A significant monopoly that was broken up by the Justice Department was the telecommunications monopoly owned by AT&T. After AT&T was broken up into a series of smaller companies, the government passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The FCC said that this act would allow competition among phone carriers by mandating that the major carriers must allow new companies to lease services off of their lines and sell those services to customers. The act has succeeded in fostering competition and has opened up the telecommunications marketplace in ways that had not been possible in the past.

One of the areas where the FCC has drawn a great deal of criticism is in regulating the "decency" of radio and television broadcasts. In 2004, Janet Jackson had what was called a "wardrobe malfunction" during the Super Bowl halftime show that caused part of her bare breast to be exposed. The FCC had been cracking down on what it considered indecent programming prior to 2004, but the Super Bowl incident prompted the FCC and the federal government to create the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005. This act allows the FCC to impose fines of $325,000 on networks that broadcast material that is considered by the commission to be indecent.

In 2014, the idea of "net neutrality" gained momentum as the FCC indicated that it might want to change its stance on allowing Internet providers to limit access to users and website owners who would not pay a premium. The FCC had created a series of regulations that had created an "open Internet." This meant that providers could not limit user access. But some providers have been challenging the FCC's authority over net neutrality in court, and that could be causing the FCC to change its stance.

What the FCC is Doing for Communication Today

With telecommunications technology expanding, the FCC's job is not getting any easier. These days, the FCC is concerned with net neutrality, the expansion of wireless phone networks, and the crowded condition of broadcast airwaves. The things we take for granted, such as telephone numbers and Internet network addresses, are rapidly running out, and the FCC has to worry about preparing for the future while making sure that communications remain stable in the present.