Regulating the government's airwaves: creation of the Interdepartmental Radio Advisory Committee (IRAC).

Author:Benjamin, Louise M.
 
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As new media technologies evolve, many become necessities--telegraph, telephone, and undersea cable in the 19th century, for example, and radio, television, cable, and satellite television in the 20th. Today, the Internet has joined this growing list of indispensable media. As the history of these shows, societies develop ways to manage, control, and exploit media as they grow and disperse. Individuals, businesses, and government bodies jockey for domination of the new entity, and clashes often occur from the unequal positions of power each interested party has vested in the new technology. Ultimately, "winners" rise from the disputes, and protocols, technical standards, and common regulations arise for the new technology.

In the United States, when radio waves emerged as a new wireless technology at the turn of the 20th century, initial regulation was minimal. No one knew how, or if, wireless would develop and if it would become one of the crucial media necessary for modern life. By 1930 several indispensable, distinct uses for wireless had materialized, including radio broadcasting to the American public and government inter- and intra-agency communication for public safety, national security, and other government needs. Spectrum was allocated to both broadcasting and government, and today government usage commands nearly half the spectrum allocated to the United States through international agreement. In the 1920s, no one knew that this division between government and nongovernment uses of spectrum would arise, nor did any one realize that separate regulatory bodies for effective technology and spectrum management would ultimately be required.

Thus, in the 1920s and 1930s, the interaction among individuals, government bodies, and industry organizations set regulations for all radio services in the United States, private and governmental. As spectrum was allocated, however, each entity operated from different positions of strength. Large corporations, for instance, wielded great influence over allocations for broadcasting in the 1920s and 1930s, as McChesney (1993) and others establish, and, as this article illustrates, they also exerted considerable sway as spectrum was allocated for government use. During these decades government agencies also discussed providing programming and setting up a government-operated network for the United States, choices ultimately rejected as commercial broadcasting developed.

How those options emerged, were discussed, and then set aside illustrates how commercial interests and unequal power among government departments dominated the institutionalization of radio policy in the United States. In 1922 this struggle formed the Interdepartmental Radio Advisory Committee (IRAC), the agency responsible today for regulating the government's spectrum allocation in conjunction with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The story of IRAC's formation also helps explain how commercial interests and government-sponsored radio endeavors diverged in the 1920s so that no viable government-owned radio operation emerged to compete with, or to complement, commercial radio. In addition, as no complete history exists of the Interdepartmental Radio Advisory Committee, this article begins that chronicle through reviewing IRAC's formation and early years to passage of the Radio Act of 1927, when the split between government and private uses for radio truly took hold.

Government Radio to 1920

Government "broadcasting" began in 1904 with naval telegraphic transmission of weather and oceanographic reports through 30 radio telegraphy stations set up along the coasts. These stations radioed information to Navy and commercial ships alike. Private commercial stations and government stations, however, interfered with each other. President Theodore Roosevelt set up a board to deal with this interference, but its recommendations were never officially adopted. These proposals included control over radio by the Navy in wartime and by the Department of Commerce and (then) Labor in peacetime, legislation to prevent commercial control over the medium, and installation of government stations in all U.S. territories. While these ideas can be identified throughout subsequent American regulatory policy, no law was passed then. The first regulation affecting radio, the Wireless Ship Act of 1910, mandated all ships carrying over 50 passengers have wireless operations, and with it, official government oversight of commercial radio began (An Act to Require, 1910).

On July 1, 1911, the Bureau of Navigation in the Department of Commerce and Labor was created specifically to handle duties under the 1910 act. Two inspectors were appointed for each coast, and they had responsibility for inspection of commercial radio installations on American and foreign ships. Their goal was to increase radio equipment efficiency and to provide greater protection to the traveling public (Department of Commerce, 1927). With passage of the Radio Act of 1912, Congress expanded the Department of Commerce and Labor's regulatory oversight of commercial radio to include licensing stations and setting standards of operation pertinent to radio. (An Act to Regulate Radio Communication, 1912) This law regulated radio, including the nascent broadcast industry, until passage of the Radio Act of 1927.

During World War I, the Navy took over radio with the exception of Army field communications and some United Fruit Company stations in Central and South America. During and after World War I, the Navy sought government ownership over all radio communication, but other departments were unwilling to cede such management to the Navy. Consequently, the immediate postwar years saw a bitter internecine struggle for control over the growing medium. While the various departments involved had legitimate claims to control radio, the strengths of their claims varied, as did their influence in the policymaking arena. Ultimately, the Department of Commerce through backing by the commercial industry won this battle for control. (Barnouw, 1966; Benjamin, 2001; Rosen, 1980)

The Post Office believed it held authority over radio, finding support in an 1866 law establishing its jurisdiction over construction of telegraph lines to aid communication among various government departments (Burleson, 1917) Building upon its administration of all telephone and telegraph communications during World War I, the Post Office's proposals contained provisions for controlling and administering all postwar wireless communications. Such propositions alarmed AT&T. AT&T engineer John Carty approached the Navy covertly to enlist the Navy's support against any Post Office takeover of radio by offering its aid to the Navy in case of emergencies, including war. At the same time, the commerce department questioned the Navy's desire for complete control over wireless, especially private communication. Before the war, Secretary of Commerce and Labor William Redfield had written Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels that under the Radio Act of 1912, the commerce department had jurisdiction over private companies and added he did not favor the Navy's takeover of radio (Redfield, 1918; Rosen, 1980, pp. 15-46) The Department of Interior opposed all government control over radio (Memorandum for Secretary Redfield, 1918; Todd, 1918), while the Army Signal Corps and Secretary of War Newton Baker warned Congress that control of radio solely in the hands of the Navy would hinder both military organizations' development of wireless and stifle private commercial development as well. In addition, they believed all land communication should be the province of the war department (Baker, 1918, December 19a, 19b).

If the war department's plan was not feasible, then a joint venture of Navy, War, and Commerce departments would be best to develop the medium, Baker thought. To this end, in 1919 he suggested the President appoint a board consisting of two representatives from the Army, two from the Navy, and one or two from Commerce to regulate the medium (Baker, 1919, January 19, May 28). Acting Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt supported a permanent board or commission, as he thought such a board would greatly advance radio development by government and private interests alike (Roosevelt, 1919). Private companies, especially AT&T and General Electric, opposed any government takeover of postwar wireless. They overwhelmingly sided with the Department of Commerce in what they called their "natural home" for any regulatory efforts. They also believed that if a commission or board were to be developed, private interests should have equal representation on that body (Rosen, 1980, pp. 47-59).

The Navy and others pushed Congress for laws favoring their proposed regulatory positions, but all postwar radio legislative efforts failed. Legislators opposed government control over wireless and feared government interference with private enterprise. Private companies and government agencies, however, agreed that technical aspects of radio needed management. Larger companies such as AT&T and RCA worked with government agencies behind the scenes to achieve mutual goals in curbing interference and allocating spectrum for their businesses. Government agencies realized, though, that regulatory control needed to be housed somewhere. Ultimately, the Department of Commerce under Secretary Herbert Hoover gained control over the fledgling commercial industry and became the recognized leader of regulatory affairs and the impetus of IRAC's formation (Barnouw, 1966; Benjamin, 1998, 2001; Rosen, 1980).

By the end of World War I, an informal committee had been established to coordinate efforts of all government bodies having interests in electrical communication. As legislation regulating radio in early 1920 was discussed, the Navy proposed the appointment of a National Radio Commission with...

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