What Is It?
Who’s allowed to broadcast on the radio? What happens if you drop an f-bomb on network tv? Are mobile wireless providers acting in the best interest of consumers? Those are questions for a government agency called the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The FCC is the manager of the public airwaves. This agency is in charge of regulating all radio, TV, satellite, cable, and wireless communication across the U.S, along with some parts of internet communication. That means they’re keeping an eye on mobile phone carriers (like Verizon, AT&T or T-Mobile), satellite internet and tv providers (like DIRECTV or Dish) and much more.
The big thing to know is that the FCC sees our airwaves as a public good, something that belongs to all of us and should be used for the benefit of society. In fact, the 1934 law that created the FCC set things up this way: the agency can issue broadcast licenses to companies only if they agreed to operate in the “public interest, necessity, and convenience.” If you think of the airwaves as one giant apartment building, the FCC’s job is making sure all the companies living in that building are good tenants.
This is why, for example, broadcast television is mostly profanity-free and why radio stations don’t interfere with each other. If you’ve got a product that operates on the airwaves – say a baby monitor or a wifi router – and you want to sell it to American customers, you need permission from the FCC.
The FCC is run by five commissioners – a fancy word for directors – and one of them serves as chair. No more than three of those commissioners can be from the same political party, so there are always opposing views.
Don’t get it twisted: It’s easy to confuse the FCC with other federal agencies like the FEC (Federal Election Commission) or the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). These agencies are in charge of totally different things, so make sure you know which one you’re talking about!
Why It Matters to You
Squeaky Clean Airwaves
You can mostly watch broadcast television with your grandmother, and that’s partly because the FCC determines what kind of speech is acceptable on the airwaves. If you see or hear four-letter words, offensive content, or nudity, whoever broadcast that stuff is probably looking at a hefty fine from the FCC.
Safe Airwaves: Police, firefighters, and the military have their own protected radio frequencies. The FCC makes sure random people don’t interfere with them.
You Don’t Own Me: Are consumers better off when more companies have to compete for their business? Should the government be involved in answering that question? When T-Mobile and Sprint said in 2019 that they wanted to merge, they had to get approval from the FCC first. Some people said the merger would create a bigger, stronger telecommunications company that could provide better service in rural areas. Other people said the merger would lead to higher prices for consumers and push companies to focus only on the customers who pay the most.
Net Neutrality: What if the company that provides your home internet made one newspaper’s website load faster than others? What if it decided that you could stream Netflix but that other streaming services would cost extra? Net neutrality is the idea that internet service providers should treat all data equally. The FCC created strong net neutrality rules in 2015 but the commissioners have weakened those rules in recent years.
Responsibility Online: By law, tech companies aren’t responsible for what individuals post online. For the most part, if you’re offended or outraged by something you see on Facebook, you can’t successfully sue Mark Zuckerberg. This is all because of a piece of law known as Section 230. There’s some gray area in there though, and the FCC can decide how to interpret Section 230 – which could impact what content stays up on social media and what gets removed.
How to Make an Impact
Insert Comment Here
Like most federal agencies, the FCC is required to follow a “notice and comment” period when it’s trying to make a new rule or regulation. Before the new rule goes into effect, companies, advocacy groups, lobbyists, and ordinary Americans can write in to share how the new regulation would affect them. The FCC lets you search all rules open for comment, as well as historical examples dating back to 1992. Civic Genius also has a helpful guide to help you submit your own comment!
Vote, Vote, Vote
The FCC is led by its commissioners, who are each appointed by the president. Commissioners typically serve five-year terms, so when the president appoints one, it’s a pretty big deal. Your vote in a presidential election could help determine who gets appointed to the FCC and whether the commissioners represent your interests.
The president appoints commissioners to the FCC, but that’s not the whole story. The Senate still has to confirm those commissioners. Did the president nominate someone who embodies your values? Ask your senator to confirm them! Did the president nominate someone you think is terrible? Ask your senator to vote against confirmation! You can call, write, or ask for a meeting. And keep the pressure up by writing an op-ed for your local newspaper!
Hey Congress: Do Something
Though the president gets to determine who leads the FCC, most other rules about how the agency operates are left to Congress (that’s who created the FCC in the first place, after all). People across the ideological spectrum have been calling on Congress in recent years to update the FCC, given the amount of technological change we’ve seen over the past few decades. Have thoughts about what Congress should do? Call, write, or ask for a meeting with your member of Congress or Senator and make your voice heard.
On the Ground
People like you are having an impact across the country every day. Here are a few times people tried to change things at the FCC:
When the FCC was considering whether to repeal net neutrality rules in 2017, Americans submitted a record number of comments to the agency. And talk about a conspiracy — journalists later revealed that many telecommunications companies secretly paid to have millions of fake anti-net neutrality comments submitted.
In May 2022, the FCC proposed allowing federal funding to equip school buses with wifi. Many students don’t have access to high-speed internet at home, so many educators have weighed in to say they support extra connectivity on the way to and from school. Others have spoken up to say it’s a waste of money because kids will just use it to watch TikTok.
In Knoxville, Tennessee, the FCC is moving to revoke the license for WJBE, the city’s only Black-owned radio station, due to the owner’s previous conviction for tax fraud. The agency says that it carefully considers a person’s character when deciding whether or not to issue a license, while the owner of WJBE is pushing back publicly, saying he has already paid his debt to society.