FCC copes with 'fairly ancient' testing equipment

Many of the Federal Communications Commission's duties in tracking telecommunications interference problems and testing new equipment for safety could have life or death consequences, and the agency is operating with "fairly ancient" equipment, said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who recently visited one of the agency's labs in Columbia, Md.

"It was almost like going back to 10th-grade chemistry lab and finding it unchanged," said Upton, who graduated from high school in 1971. Despite its old equipment, the FCC has "very dedicated personnel who work very, very hard" and are able to get the job done, he said.

To compensate, engineers at the FCC have made their own equipment and borrowed tools from the industry.

As chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee, Upton wants to help the FCC get the necessary funding to upgrade its facilities. "I don't think they have had the budget up to this point that allows them to have the technology that they need to do the job that we want them to do," Upton said in an interview with National Journal's Technology Daily.

For example, when there is an interference problem of any kind--with satellite, radio, television, emergency vehicles or airlines--the FCC is the "ghost buster" called in to identify the source of the interference and fix the problem, Upton said.

The agency also must test high-definition television equipment with the deadline looming for the nation's TV stations to switch from analog to digital signals. It is a big job to improve the facilities, and "we can't do it overnight," Upton said, adding that the upgrades probably would be phased in over a period of years.

"One of the things [FCC Chairman Michael Powell] and Congress have been talking about is reestablishing our independent engineering and assessment capabilities," an FCC source said.

By press time, neither cost estimates nor specific short- or long-term plans on how to upgrade the labs were available.

Last week, testifying before the House Commerce, Justice, State and the Judiciary Appropriations Subcommittee, Powell requested $249 million for the FCC in fiscal 2002, which would be an 8 percent jump over fiscal 2001.

He said the increase would "ensure that the FCC has the tools to facilitate its reform efforts, upgrade its technological capabilities and further enhance its workforce." He also told the committee that "our laboratory facilities in Columbia, Md., need to be upgraded to provide engineers with the tools to engage in critical and challenging work."

Once the recently confirmed new group of FCC commissioners is installed and has studied the issue, Upton plans to hold a hearing in either late July or early September to address the FCC's equipment and technological needs.

Having the best technology possible is necessary for many reasons and can be a useful recruiting tool to lure new engineers to the agency, Upton said. Approximately 40 percent of the FCC's engineers and technical experts are eligible for retirement over the next four years, and the FCC competes with the higher-paying private sector for technical experts.