In 1895, Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated the feasibility of radio communication. By 1902, he had successfully transmitted the world’s first transatlantic radiotelegraph message, and the wireless communications era had begun. It didn’t take long before radio telecommunications regulation became necessary with the first attempt at regulating the radio industry occurring just over 100 years ago.
Early Telecommunications Regulations
Early regulations reflected the usage at the time, with the Wireless Ship Act of 1910 focusing on ships with 60 or more passengers. These ships had to have radio equipment intended to transmit messages that facilitated commerce and protected the well-being of passengers. The Wireless Ship Act was overseen by the US Department of Commerce as part of its task of regulating interstate and foreign commerce.
The Radio Act of 1912 soon followed, adding more comprehensive legislative oversight to the US radio industry. This act required radio operators to obtain licenses, regulated modulation types and implemented privacy prohibitions, but it did not address radio broadcasting.
Radio users included military, police, and emergency responders, and later by the 1920s, broadcasters. As adoption increased, demand for airtime increased. Frequencies were limited and each group needed the ability to transmit their messages without interference. The radio industry was growing up, spawning the creation of the independent Federal Radio Commission (FRC) in 1927 as part of the Radio Act of 1927.
This act took authority away from the Department of Commerce and into the FRC’s. The FRC had the authority to deny licenses (something the Department of Commerce was unable to do) as well as assign power levels and frequencies to each licensee.
As you know, telecommunications isn’t limited to radio communications. Telephones, television, and, now, the Internet, all fall under the umbrella of telecom. Thus, the Federal Radio Commission was short lived. The Communications Act of 1934 replaced the Federal Radio Commission with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which was also granted control and telecommunications regulation with telephone communications and broadcasting.
The Electromagnetic Spectrum as a Public Resource
The FCC and its role is based on the premise that the electromagnetic spectrum, or the so-called airwaves that radio and television are broadcast over, is a public resource that is scarce and belongs to the people. Its management is similar to that of another public resource, US forests. In order to use a given frequency, broadcasters must obtain a license and serve the interest of the community. As such, the FCC had broader authority to deny licenses or restrict content, which is why the FCC has had a say over programming and indecent content.
In addition to allocating frequencies, licensing operators, and enforcing decency standards, the FCC has broken up monopolies, overseen testing of cell phones and digital television, and taken a stance on issues such as Net Neutrality.
Though technologies have changed dramatically since its inception, the FCC still regulates telecommunications in the United States more than 90 years later.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
“Encyclopedia of Radio Regulation.” n.d. http://www.oswego.edu/~messere/RadioReg.pdf
“Exploring U.S. History | Regulating Television.” n.d. Accessed November 29, 2017. http://chnm.gmu.edu/exploring/20thcentury/regulatingtelevision/
“The History of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) | ShoreTel – Business Communications Solutions That Make Interactions Simple.” n.d. Accessed November 29, 2017. https://www.shoretel.com/history-federal-communications-commission-fcc
“Who Invented Radio?” n.d. Accessed November 29, 2017. http://public.wsu.edu/~bryan.mclaughlin/Radio/Who_Invented_Radio.html