Take a Number - Page 2

Old System, New Technology

From ultrawideband to bluetooth to wireless data phones, PCs and screw-in fluorescent light bulbs, the FCC is a vital stop on the road to market. No product that emits radio waves--either as part of its function or as a byproduct--can legally be marketed in the U.S. without meeting the FCCs requirements And for most mobile products and leading-edge technologies, marketing requires advance FCC approval that depends on a review of test data by 14 engineers in suburban Maryland.

The newest technologies have to wait while the skeleton staff--working with old equipment and ever-changing political pressures--devises the tests and specifications the products must meet to be approved. At the same time--and often at the request of competing companies--they must take time out to test samples of products already certified and on the market to make sure the real McCoy is behaving the way the paperwork said it would.

To top it off, the engineers must also produce one or two major reports per year "to determine the interference impact of changes in spectrum sharing provisions, or reports on the impact of new technologies such as digital television," an FCC spokeswoman said. And that is one area in which the outdated equipment makes for a daunting task.

All that adds up to a huge backlog at the FCCs labs. While most agree there has been a significant reduction in the past two years, hundreds of products are still gathering dust, awaiting approval. They belong to some of the leading names in high-tech: Alcatel, Ericsson, Lucent Technologies, Motorola, Nokia and Seimens, to name a few.

"Time to market is very critical to this industry," Groh said. "A company can lose as much as $1 million a day if they are trying to introduce a device with new features that cant go on the market for 60 days."

Even the FCCs chairman, Michael Powell, has told Congress his laboratories are outdated and the agency is in danger of losing some 40 percent of its engineering talent within the next four years, as the engineers reach retirement age.

"The lab itself is in growing disrepair," Powell testified on March 29. "We dont even have the equipment that will even measure the [products]."

But the FCC has received little sympathy--or money--from Capitol Hill recently. It was one of three agencies targeted for elimination after the ascent of former Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and the Republican House in 1995. It has since been caught in a tug of war between Democrats who support the agency and majority Republicans constantly looking to privatize or eliminate its functions.

"Generally speaking, unless you have support from people over on the Hill that sort of believe in what youre doing, and people from OMB [the White House Office of Management and Budget] that believe in what you are doing, its hard for a regulatory agency in this deregulatory climate to make the case for funding," said Dale Hatfield, a longtime FCC engineer who served as head of the labs from 1997 until December 2000.