January 14, 2015 - 1:29 pm
By Michael O'Rielly | Commissioner

Although a lot of work has been done over the last few years to integrate some aspects of our modern communications tools into the workings of the Federal Communications Commission, more is needed to reduce the Commission’s reliance on the United States Postal Service (USPS).  While I have no particular problem with the USPS, the right thing to do is to embrace electronic technology and set it as the default for any communication or action by the Commission, thereby saving a bit of money and promoting efficiency. 

In fairness, the Commission has been actively trying to move forward on electronic licensing.  In December, the Commission’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau released a Public Notice, after seeking public input, announcing that, effective 30 days after publication in the Federal Register, it would implement paperless licensing.  Based on an idea raised in Chairman Wheeler’s FCC process reform effort, it was decided that the Commission would stop issuing and mailing paper licenses for current authorizations to licensees and registrants, unless an entity notifies the Commission that it still wants to receive official licenses by mail.  Under this framework, almost all electronic versions of Commission authorizations stored in two licensing systems (the Universal Licensing System and the Antenna Structure Registration System) would be deemed as official Commission documents.  Considering that the Commission issues almost half a million wireless licenses and authorizations per year at a cost of over $300,000, this could result in substantial savings.  Hopefully, the new paperless system will go into effect shortly.

Two recent Commission consent agenda items demonstrate the downside of using traditional mail to communicate with licensees.  In one, the Commission voted to reject a broadcast station owner’s request to reinstate a dismissed application because its petition was over four months late.  The station argues that its challenge was timely because it was filed within 30 days of receiving letter notification of the decision in the mail.  Our justification for denying the request was based, in part, on the argument that the information was widely available via a timely released public notice and, pursuant to Commission rules, filing deadlines are computed based on the release date of this public notice.  If the public notice constitutes official Commission action, then why should the FCC’s Media Bureau mail notifications?  And, if such courtesy notifications continue, electronic communications should be used, especially as the Media Bureau is phasing in a new electronic filing system.

In the other case, applications were dismissed for failure to pay the necessary regulatory fees on time.  The license holders claim that they did not receive appropriate notifications of the delinquency because letters were sent to the wrong addresses.  Once again, this resulted in untimely petitions for reconsideration of licensing decisions. The Commission’s reason for denying the request highlights that it is the burden of station owners to maintain accurate mailing addresses with the Commission.  But why use mailing addresses at all?  Why not use electronic communications for such notifications?  That way any communication between the Commission and an outside party can be fully documented, thereby eliminating most, if not all, factual discrepancies.

In fact, the Report on FCC Process Reform, which was publicly released February 14, 2014, recommends that that all Commission Bureaus with licensing responsibility move to electronic means for licensing and communicating with licensees and the public (see recommendations 2.6 through 2.8).  And the specific recommendation put the obligation on the FCC’s Managing Director to convene representatives from the applicable licensing bureaus to implement.  What is the hold-up on completing this very reasonable review of our licensing and notification processes, and why haven’t other actions been taken to move towards electronic recordkeeping and communications?  

Moreover, we should ensure that our overall effort is sufficiently broad to incorporate all (or at least most) interactions with those we regulate.  For instance, the National Association of Manufacturers submitted comments in the record in response to the Wireless Public Notice recommending that the Commission use electronic notifications when applications are returned.  This seems exceptionally reasonable and should be seriously considered.  Our uniform position should be that all communications should be done electronically, unless it is absolutely necessary to do otherwise.  

I understand that steps will have to be taken to change our practices to utilize electronic communications.  For instance, licensees may have to maintain current e-mail addresses in Commission databases.  But, this is no greater a burden on Commission licensees than today’s requirement to maintain mailing addresses. 

In the end, the Commission has the responsibility to update its procedures to ensure better interactions with the licensing community and save taxpayers money.  Chairman Wheeler set the Commission on the right path on this particular item, but now we need to follow through at a much swifter pace.