Hope on the Horizon?
The FCCs laboratory division is the largest division of the FCCs Office of Engineering and Technology. It has 14 engineers and a dozen other workers in its three branches.
The largest branch is the Equipment Authorization branch, run by Richard Fabina, which processes all applications, and identifies "new or novel products" in the market and figures out how to best test them. Raymond A. LaForge heads the Measurements and Calibration Branch, which is in charge of developing test procedures and certifying outside groups that companies can hire to test products. David L. Means runs the third and smallest branch, the Technical Research Branch, which oversees the testing of new telecommunications technologies.
Franca said he needs at least $2 million right away--$1 million for an enlarged test facility and $1 million to bring his equipment up to modern standards--plus a $200,000 annual budget for routine upgrades to keep pace with developments.
But he also needs more people. The tiny engineering staff is composed mainly of people who have been with the agency for decades.
"It would be good for [Powell] to come out on a normal workday and see how little testing were doing because of staffing," Fabina said.
The workers are universally acclaimed for being intelligent and hardworking, good solid engineers and public servants. "Those guys work like galley slaves there," Time Domains Ross said.
But they are also, for the most part, within a few years of retirement. Some are set to retire in just one or two years. One engineer, Errol Chang, passed away at the end of April.
"Were down 10 people since 1997, and this [testing and approval] process has gotten a lot more complicated," Franca said.
Replacing staff is a daunting task, in large part because of salary. The FCC, operating on the governments civil service pay scale, can at best hope to offer an engineer coming out of college about $31,000 per year. The agency is trying to find a way to move engineers into a higher civil service ranking that would pay $47,000. But doing that is complicated because it might cause other workers in the lower scale to also demand upgrades.
Even at $47,000, the FCC wouldnt be close to competitive. In the private sector, "six-figure salaries" are not uncommon for people in the same job role, Seiffert at the TIA said, especially for those with training in the areas the FCC needs most.
Hatfield said he has been sounding warnings about the engineering shortage and pay scale problem for years, but to deaf ears. Its a far cry from the 1970s, when he first came to the FCC, and each of the then seven commissioners had--by law--an engineer on staff. "The decline in the number of engineers is sad, and its one of the critical issues" for the FCC, Hatfield said.
Powell has discussed possible ways to encourage young engineers to choose the FCC over the private sector. Among them would be some kind of student subsidy program for college students studying engineering, who would in turn agree to spend a certain number of years working for the FCC.
Hatfield believes some of the billions of dollars the FCC is raising for the U.S. Treasury through spectrum auctions ought to be "reinvested" in the labs for equipment and engineering talent.
But many technology industry executives say money is not the only solution to the problem. They want to see the FCC continue down the road to privatization of the testing and certification process, as is the case in Europe. Specifically, they want the FCC to move more quickly to expand the number of approved outside certification labs and the list of products that can be certified outside the FCC itself. Eventually, they would like a system that is entirely one of self-certification with post-market enforcement.
They also want the FCC to move more quickly to implement a mutual recognition agreement between the U.S. and the EU that would let products approved in one market be sold in the other.
The idea of shifting to enforcement and away from the mountain of approval paperwork sits well with the labs leaders as well.
"Wed like to change the labs to a function of oversight," Franca said. "Wed like to get out of the approval business in a big way. Instead, we would watch the TCBs and watch the newest technology, where there arent set procedures yet, and get involved in the technical studies area, to support the commissioners in policy decisions, the technology implications of policy decisions."
Indeed, both Powell and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., have said they want to move the FCC into a greater role in enforcement and less in direct regulation.
And there may be hope for the labs in the fiscal 2002 budget submitted by President George W. Bush. It calls for a healthy spending boost for the FCC, including money for equipment and several new engineers. Although the final budget numbers are a long way off, there is a renewed sense in Congress that something has to be done about a situation that has a serious impact on the technology industry and the economy.
"That was one of the first issues that we talked about when I became chairman," said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet. "They do need help."