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Communications Act of 1934

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Derived From: From History of Wire and Broadcast Communication, FCC (May 1993)

The Federal Communications Commission was established in 1934 during Franklin D Roosevelt's New Deal. It was not, however, something new created out of the ether. Rather, the FCC assimilated authority from other preexisting agencies. The goal was to create one independent agency with expertise over communications. The FCC assimilated the Federal Radio Commission and authority over telephone and telegraph carrier operations from the the Interstate Commerce Commission, authority over telegraph rates from the Post Office Department, and authority over cable landing rights from the Department of State. The Communications Act allowed the FCC additional authority, including regulation of rates of interstate and international common carriers, and domestic administration of international agreements relating generally to electronic communication. [Compare 78 Cong. Rec. 10,313 (1934) ("The bill as a whole does not change existing law, not only with reference to radio but with reference to telegraph, telephone, and cable, except in the transfer of jurisdiction [from the ICC to the FCC] and such minor amendments as to make that transfer effective.")]

"President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, requested the Secretary of Commerce to appoint an interdepartmental committee for studying electronic communications. The Committee reported that "the communications service, as far as congressional action is involved, should be regulated by a single body." A recommendation was made for the establishment of a new agency that would regulate all interstate and foreign communication by wire and radio, telegraphy, telephone and broadcast.

Govt officials were unhappy with the ICC which was preoccupied with railroad regulation and rarely paid attention to telephone carriers. [Brands p 4]

"On February 26, 1934, the President sent a special message to Congress urging the creation of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The following day Senator Dill and Representative Sam Rayburn of Texas introduced bills to carry out this recommendation. The Senate Bill (S.3285) passed the House on June 1, 1934, and the conference report was adopted by both houses eight days later. The Communications Act was signed by President Roosevelt on June 1934. Particular parts of it became effective July 1, 1934; other parts on July 11, 1934. And thus the FCC was born.

"The stated purposes of the Act are "regulating interstate and foreign commerce in communication by wire and radio so as to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States a rapid, efficient, nationwide, and worldwide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges... the national defense... promoting safety of life and property through the use of wire and radio communication..."

In 1934, only 2% of telephone traffic was "interstate." The rest was intrastate, overwhich the FCC lacked jurisdiction. [Mueller 6]

"The Act applies "to all interstate and foreign communication by wire or radio and all interstate and foreign transmission of energy by radio, which originates and/or is received within the United States, and to all persons engaged within the United States in such communication or such transmission of energy by radio, and to the licensing and regulation of all radio stations..."

"The Communications Act of 1934, as amended, consists of six major sections or "titles":

Title I - General Provisions:

Title II - Common carriers.

Title III - Provisions related to radio

Title IV - Procedural and administrative provisions.

Title V - Penal Provisions; Forfeitures.

Title VI - Cable Communications  

The current structure of the FCC largely tracks the major sections of the Communications Act with the Wireline Competition Bureau (common carriers), the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau (radio), and the Media Bureau (cable and TV). Addition, the FCC also currently has the Enforcement Bureau, the Public Safety Bureau, and the International Bureau. Originally the FCC was divided into three bureaus: broadcast, telegraph, and telephone.

"The FCC began operating on July 11, 1934. Seven Commissioners were appointed by the President, and confirmed by the Senate. The President designated one of the Commissioners as Chairman of the FCC. Most appointed to the FCC were lawyers with public utility experience or government service. Not more than four of the seven Commissioners could be members of the same political party. In July, 1983, the Act was amended to reduce the composition of the Commission to five, not more than three members of the same political party.

"The first Commission members were Eugene O. Sykes, Thad H. Brown, Paul A. Walker, Norman Case, Irvin Stewart, George Henry Paine, and Hampson Gary. The Commissioners duties are to supervise all FCC activities, delegate responsibilities to staff units, bureaus, and to committees of Commissioners."

Reconsideration

Apparently FDR was not initially pleased with his creation, the FCC. In 1939, he sent the following letter to the Senate:

Honorable Burton K. Wheeler,
United States Senate,
Washington, D. C.

My dear Senator:

Although considerable progress has been made as a result of efforts to reorganize the work of the Federal Communications Commission under existing law, I am thoroughly dissatisfied with the present legal framework and administrative machinery of the Commission. I have come to the definite conclusion that new legislation is necessary to effectuate a satisfactory reorganization of the Commission.

New legislation is also needed to lay down clear Congressional policies on the substantive side—so clear that the new administrative body will have no difficulty in interpreting or administering them.

I very much hope that your Committee will consider the advisability of such new legislation.

I have sent a duplicate of this letter to Chairman Lea of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, and I have asked Chairman McNinch of the Commission to discuss this problem with you and give you his recommendations.

Very sincerely yours,

[FDR]

 

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