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Abolish the FCC? You're crazy

Readers respond to Declan McCullagh's argument that the agency has become irrelevant.

When it comes to the Federal Communications Commission, telecommunications regulator and bane of Howard Stern, everyone seems to have a remarkably strong opinion.

After I suggested eliminating the FCC in a recent column, my poor in-box was stuffed with scores of polarized responses. They were evenly divided between CNET News.com readers convinced that abolishing one of Washington's more optional agencies is long overdue--and others convinced that I'm a blithering idiot.

"The FCC, notwithstanding Janet Jackson silliness and other poor decisions, is definitely necessary," Hank Williams wrote. "If mistakes were a (criterion) for government institution elimination, then the Iraq war would be justification for the elimination of the presidency. And just to be clear, that's a silly idea, too."

Phil Koenig accused me of pandering to big business: "I've never liked the idea--just hatched during the Clinton years--of auctioning off the airwaves.

People tend to be better stewards of what they own than of public property they don't.
Abolish the FCC? Talk about regressive. That would be one of the biggest giveaways to elite corporate interests of a public resource that I can think of. You may as well suggest selling off to the highest bidder the National Park System, federal wildlife preserves and the White House."

Last week's column recounted examples of the FCC's mistakes that have cost Americans tens of billions of dollars, concluding that the commission is so technologically backward that it is doing more harm than good. Airwaves could be privatized, and rights to spectrum could be enforced by courts, with antitrust law ensuring that no single company would become a monopolist of the airwaves.

"Just selling off the public spectrum to large, international corporations with the highest bids to do with as they please is downright frightening! How much more junk and advertising that serves no public good do we need forced down our throats?" asked Paul Tincknell, who apparently doesn't like to change the channel. "With no avenue for recourse, how do we stop the crap from flowing into every open communications port in our lives? And when the free-market choice is more of the same but from a different company, what kind of competition is that?"

Raife Edwards, writing in the comment section at the end of last week's column, wanted to reform the FCC instead of eliminating it. "In short, I agree that 'public resources' should be regulated by government for the benefit of society--the least amount of control that is workable, as our founding fathers intended--however, the FCC's actions are simply inexcusable."

Homesteading rights
One source of dismay was the amateur-radio community, which worried that the slice of spectrum they rely on would be replaced with commercial stations blaring Top 40 hits.

Gordon Lundy wrote: "I am an ardent amateur-radio enthusiast, and if the FCC were completely removed from the scene in terms of radio frequency, regulation there would be, based upon the incredible commercial precedents of previous legal challenges by cellular phone and telecommunications companies, a near total loss of any 'open' and protected radio bandwidths used by amateur and emergency radio services. Those frequencies would be withdrawn from the public and then become 'private' bandwidths."

Ed Cummings was concerned about not just amateur radio but also other noncommercial users. "How would your free-market approach to radio spectrum management accommodate noncommercial users of the spectrum? These would include individuals using GMRS, FRS and CB frequencies, as well as over 700,000 U.S. radio amateurs whose well-rehearsed use of large chunks of their spectrum for effective disaster relief is well documented.

Not everyone thought I should be thwacked upside the head with a satellite dish.
There are millions of amateur 'ham' radio operators worldwide. Many users of the radio spectrum do not use it for a profit, nor can they afford to bid against corporations."

These are reasonable objections. Fortunately, the answer is simple: Amateur radio operators would be granted homesteading rights to the spectrum they currently use. Title could be awarded to the American Radio Relay League, the national association of ham radio buffs, which likely would police use of it more carefully than the FCC currently does. People tend to be better stewards of what they own than of public property they don't.

Other existing broadcasters and cellular providers would be granted rights to the spectrum they use. No other solution is reasonable or feasible, especially when companies like AT&T have written checks in the tens of billions for spectrum licenses. Privatizing the airwaves would let their owners buy and sell slices of idle spectrum that could be put to more productive uses quickly. Compare that to the current process of hiring $500-an-hour lawyers to beg the FCC for political boons that may never be granted.

Another defense of the FCC came from fans of software-defined radio, which can jump around vast chunks of the radio spectrum, including PCS, cellular and other wireless frequencies. Because those radios are so flexible, the argument goes, spectrum should be treated as a kind of public commons. Perhaps. But it's hardly clear that the FCC can make better decisions than the actual users and developers of the technology. Meanwhile, the FCC may throttle software-defined radio in the "broadcast flag" regulations, not help the concept along.

"Ignorant politicians and bureaucrats"
Not everyone thought I should be thwacked upside the head with a satellite dish. "Loved your article on doing in the FCC--it is a decrepit, lawless institution that is simply a playground for rent seekers," said Raymond Gifford, invoking the economic term for corporations lobbying for economic advantage over their rivals. Gifford should know: He used to be the chairman of Colorado's Public Utilities Commission.

Americans offended by the spectacle of the FCC's moralists assailing Janet Jackson and Howard Stern also liked the idea of deleting the FCC and privatizing the airwaves. They recognized the truth: When airwaves are nationalized, government is a censor. The First Amendment makes it much more difficult for that to happen on private property.

Alan Wallace said the Jackson and Stern flaps "can only happen when ignorant politicians and bureaucrats look to grandstand for bigger pay and job security by saying they made sure they protected us. As a father of three, I'm more capable than my politicians, and it should be my job to begin with. Retire the FCC, and promote proper parenting."

"Excellent article on why the FCC should be abolished," Michael Fusaro said. "Here's to hoping more people like yourself in the media will spend more time bringing to light how the FCC is killing the First Amendment."

Marty Mankins was especially appreciative. "Just wanted to say kudos to you for your wonderful and truthful article on getting rid of the FCC," he said. "What was originally a government organization for managing broadcast spectrum is now the moral majority, wielding power that it has no place in (having). Your options are a perfect replacement for what needs to happen. Thank you again for your efforts as a journalist to say what needed to be said."

Marty, you're quite welcome. If anyone else wants to weigh in on whether the FCC deserves a death sentence, feel free to join the discussion in the comment section below.