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That one phrase has been the big stick with which the Federal Radio Commission has taken radio out of chaos and insured for the American people the best radio regulation in the world.

That phrase is the life or death of all broadcasting and communication stations.

“Public Interest, Convenience and Necessity”
From Radio News November 1929

Millions of American citizens now use and have access to radio receiving sets. Each day and night they enjoy their choice of splendid programs with a clarity of reception unexcelled by the radio reception of any country in the world. But it is doubtful if more than a relatively small portion of them possess any comprehensive idea of the part played by the Federal Radio Commission in making possible such ideal radio conditions.


(Top) The Honorable Herbert C. Hoover, as Secretary of Commerce, in one of his early talks over the radio.
(Bottom) The original Federal Radio Commission, of which one member (Judge Sykes) is still serving.

Following the Radio Act of 1922, all regulation of radio rested with the Secretary of Commerce. Although he had the authority to allocate frequencies to applicants for broadcasting as well as transcontinental and transoceanic licenses, he did not have sufficient authority because of defects in the wording of the law, to settle disputes, revoke licenses and limit the licenses to specific frequency assignments. His lack of authority became accentuated by the court ruling of the well-known Zenith case, and the result was the creation by Congress of the Federal Radio Commission, empowered by a stronger law to regulate radio in the public interest, convenience, and necessity. The new Federal Radio Commission was empowered to issue all licenses for broadcasting communication and other services within the United States and from the United States to foreign countries and ships at sea. Under the 1927 law, all previous radio licenses were vitiated. Accordingly it devolved upon the new commission to re-license all existing stations, considered to be operating in the "public interest, convenience and necessity" clause of the new radio act.

Obtaining the services of one of the government's foremost radio engineers and competent legal counsel, the Commission prepared to attack its major problem. A survey of the entire situation was made, thousands of questionnaires were sent out and the information so obtained was promptly applied to the decisions of the Commission in renewing licenses. By the allocation of new frequencies, or wavelengths, the congestion was reduced to the minimum possible consistent with the number of stations in existence.

The International Convention and Regulations drafted in Washington during the fall of 1927, contained the proviso that it should be put into effect beginning January 1, 1929. The Federal Radio Commission was confronted with the task of recalling and reissuing all outstanding licenses in all fields except broadcasting in order to make the services covered by these licenses conform to the service bandwidths established by this Convention.


Henry F. Bellows, Judge Sykes and Orestes H. Caldwell, three members of the original Federal Radio Commission who bore the brunt of the active work of reallocating the broadcast wavelength.

The Convention provided that for certain frequencies, where world-wide interference would not prevail, regional agreements could be made between nations in certain geographical areas. In conformity with this, the United States entered such an agreement with Canada, Cuba, and other North American nations, providing that the so-called Continental Band, i.e. the band between 1,500 and 6,000 kilocycles, be set aside for certain specific services which were subdivisions of the main headings, "Fixed and Mobile" services. These special services include ship and coastal; aircraft and aeronautical; portable, including police and geophysical; railroad rolling stock and railroad harbor and tug; fixed point to point; amateur, visual broadcasting, general experimental, and agriculture. In addition to these divisions of the Continental Band by services, this regional conference set aside a number of specific general communication channels for the exclusive use of the various nations involved.

These agreements imposed many additional responsibilities on the Commission. During the time spent on the stabilization of broadcasting, the Commission handled the periodical renewal of more than two thousand ship licenses, all point to point, transcontinental and transoceanic licenses, all airplane and experimental licenses, held hundreds of hearings in cases where applications were denied and relicensed the broadcasters quarterly.

So rapidly had successful experiments been performed and new apparatus been designed for more perfect commercial communication with radio, that the Commission soon became besieged by a host of newly formed corporations for grants to use frequencies in the continental band. Elaborate communication systems both in the United States and internationally were proposed and the keenest sort of competition for valued frequencies ensued.

The continental band has been allocated and assigned after careful study and extreme consideration for the public interest. The assignment of its frequencies will have a most important bearing upon communications of the future not only in America but throughout the world. The responsibility which is now almost completely discharged was a tremendous one.

Without codified radio laws and in the almost total absence of judicial precedents, the Federal Radio Commission is blazing new trail. While some of its rulings and decisions have fallen upon individuals with severe precision, the Commission's entire regard has been for the interest, convenience and necessity of the American public.

No other government Commission has yet been called upon to decide such a multiplicity of questions, involving moral and property rights, without definite judicial precedents for guidance. On this account the Commission's problems have often been grave but it has solved them with fearless zeal.

Another complicating factor has been the physical limitations by which radio communication is confined. The spectrum is not elastic and cannot be increased. The United States has definite bands of frequencies for definite radio services. The number of frequencies is small when compared to the number of applicants who have sought them.

The present Federal Radio Commission. Left to right: Major General Charles McK. Saltzman (Fourth Zone); Judge Eugene O.Sykes (Third Zone); Judge Ira E. Robinson (Second Zone); Harold A. Lafount (Fifth Zone); William D.C. Starbuck (First Zone)

Those industries regulated by other Commissions do not bow to such extreme physical limitations. There remains considerable ground for the building of railroads and the installation of telephone and telegraph lines and the operation of interstate motor transportation systems. If the fields of radio operation were equally abundant, its regulation would be materially facilitated.

The most un-radio-minded layman will readily infer that this work has necessitated the review of thousands of applications, thousands of letters and entailed thousands of interviews and telephone conversations on the part of the commissioners and their staff. Hundreds of hearings and conferences have also been held.

Not in the history of federal bureaus has any commission ever been called upon to perform so great a task in so short a span of time. The already overloaded departments of the federal government could not have treated with radio problems on this scale without a great increase in personnel and what would have been tantamount to the setting up of a radio commission within the department to which it might have been assigned. By its segregation and absolute independence, radio has been regulated and its major problems have been solved without handicapping any other federal bureau. More important still is the fact that no prejudice can possible exist toward any of the major government departments because of the adverse rulings of the Commission on applicants of any specific persons or corporations. The latter point is pertinent, since many of the government departments depend upon large corporations allied with the radio industry for statistics and information.

Any appreciation of the national service rendered by the Radio Commission must, of necessity, take into consideration the ever-changing picture of radio. Within two years of its tenure in office, many fixed principles of radio engineering have been shattered by new ideas. Scores of new inventions have brought improvement to radio sending and reception. The entire radio industry has moved forward, discarding the old and accepting the new, with the remarkable swiftness of Sir David Brewster's kaleidoscope.

No inconsiderable number of these changes have been fostered by the Commission in order that broadcast and communications might be extended; to eliminate harmonics, hold broadcasting stations to their exact frequencies and otherwise cause improvement in radio operation. Such improvement has been achieved by constant research and a careful study of the ideas and inventions contributed to the radio industry by individuals and independent agencies throughout the world.

Out of the experience of the Radio Commission, it has been seen that radio must parallel and not destroy existing public communication companies. Prominent leaders in Congress consider it desirable that telephone, telegraph, electric power, cable and radio transmission between the states be regulated by one single commission.

In the event this is effected by the Couzens bill, now pending in Congress, those citizens who are opposed to commissions will find the United States government minus two commissions but possessed of a new and larger commission with greater power and of mor far-flung importance than any other federal yet conceived of--the Federal Radio Commission.

 

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