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Washington needs tech wizards

As the FCC's new chairman seeks to make the agency technology-savvy, it's becoming clear it doesn't have enough engineers and is having a hard time recruiting them.

WASHINGTON--Attention all of you laid-off dot-com engineers: The Federal Communications Commission is hiring. It just hopes you don't mind a starting salary of $27,778.

Newly appointed Chairman Michael Powell has made it his mission to convert the FCC into a technology-savvy agency. Thursday at his first public meeting as chairman, he heard from each of the agency's bureau chiefs as they outlined how they aim to help him reach his goal.

There was no lack of enthusiasm for change. However, the FCC has a whole lot of lawyers and not many engineers. And the chiefs unanimously agreed they wouldn't win recruits based on salary alone.

"Our starting salaries for engineers don't keep pace with other federal agencies, let alone private industry," Commissioner Susan Ness said.

Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth noted that the FCC was unlikely to get much more money from the Bush administration for salaries, although Powell said, "We have to make that case in the budget process." But the answer doesn't have to be more money, Powell added.

"People come to work for the government for a variety of reasons, and it sure ain't money," he said, citing the nobility of public service.

Too many lawyers?
Another approach might be to shift salary funds to engineering positions from other types of jobs such as the legal profession.

The FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, for example, has 104 attorneys on staff, yet only 35 engineers. The Common Carrier Bureau, which oversees traditional phone service, has nearly 110 attorneys, yet about 50 "computer and engineering staff." The Cable Services Bureau, which has shrunk in recent years from 240 employees to 86 now, still has 30 attorneys but only 5 engineers.

When asked about this after the meeting, Powell didn't sound like a chief executive eager to hand out pink slips to his fellow attorneys.

"I would not undersell the ability of lawyers," said Powell, favoring internal education. "We need lawyers to understand engineering."

High-tech chief executives could play a role, Powell said. "I could call on almost any provide counsel and advice" to the agency and its staff on technology-related matters, he said.

But it's one thing for a wireless executive to visit the FCC and explain a new wireless data service, and another thing for the FCC to base its regulations on field tests and other scientific data provided to it by the industry it is regulating.

Powell made it clear Thursday that he wanted the FCC and its laboratory to be able to conduct comprehensive studies on all of the new technologies it faces, but the testimony suggested the agency isn't quite there yet.

Bruce Franca, acting chief of the Office of Engineering and Technology Bureau, admitted to Ness that his lab lacked the instruments needed to measure ultra-wideband signals, which are being described as an innovative way to connect mobile workers with local area networks. His hardware shortage isn't because of a lack of effort, however.

"We do a very good job of begging, borrowing and stealing" equipment, he said.

Low-tech agency
The competence of the FCC's engineering studies was questioned in Congress last year when commercial broadcasters and National Public Radio put forward field studies suggesting that the FCC's own studies on low-power radio were wrong and that the 100-watt to 1,000-watt stations would interfere with many existing radio stations. Congress ended up believing the broadcasters and severely reduced the FCC's low-power FM program.

Some 60 percent of Franca's staff are engineers vs. about 14 percent for the FCC as a whole. "We have good engineers," he said, "but we need to stay state-of-the-art."

For example, he said, his staff has significant expertise in the traditional FCC field of radio engineering but is lagging in its understanding of emerging network technologies, the very field that is central in any regulatory proceeding regarding broadband.

Many FCC engineers are from another era, said Wireless Telecommunications Bureau Chief Thomas Sugrue.

"Most of them were hired in the 1970s," he said, "and there's a reason for that. They replaced retiring engineers that had joined after World War II."

"Some 35 to 40 percent of our engineers are at retirement age," Powell said, placing further pressure on the agency.

For now, the FCC is going to keep doing the best it can with what it has and keep advertising for engineers on its Web site.