Tune in to the perfect bureaucracy
According to last year's World Almanac, the federal bureaucracy of the United States includes 13 cabinet departments and 62 ''independent'' agencies. My nominee for the perfect bureaucracy is the Federal Communications Commission.
Item: In 1940, after four years of waffling, the FCC allocated a handful of radio frequencies for FM broadcasting. Less than a year later, the FM service was shut down because there was a war on. When the war ended, the FCC decided to move the FM service to an entirely different set of frequencies, thereby rendering obsolete all the FM receivers and transmitters that were made before the war.
Item: In 1956 the FCC created four different classes of citizens' band radio (although the staunchest proponents had only asked for one class). Class A was assigned frequencies so high that manufacturing inexpensive radios was impossible. Class B was so unpopular that it was soon abandoned. Class C, for remote-control devices (such as model airplanes), was assigned frequencies that overlapped and interfered with Class D. Class D (which eventually became the only popular form of CB) was restricted to a type of transmission that, at its assigned frequencies, guaranteed poor reception and lots of interference.
Item: In 1968, the FCC prohibited cable TV systems from carrying most broadcast signals, which effectively stopped the cable industry in its tracks. In 1972, the FCC reversed its course, requiring cable systems to carry the same signals that were earlier prohibited and installing a system of regulation so severe that cable was nearly locked out of the major metropolitan areas. In 1976 , 1977, and 1978, the FCC reversed course again, dropping and amending its rules to encourage the growth of cable. In 1979, after the Supreme Court ruled that the FCC had grossly exceeded its legal authority over cable, the commission suddenly decided that ''free market competition'' was better than regulation anyway.
What has the FCC done for you lately?
At a time when American Telephone and Telegraph had been hauled into court for conduct unbecoming a monopoly, the FCC authorized a juicy hike in long-distance telephone rates to take effect on Christmas Eve, the day before the second-heaviest telephone traffic day of the year (the heaviest is Mother's Day).
Remember Dick Tracy's two-way wrist radio? Cartoonist Chester Gould came up with that futuristic invention in the 1930s. In fact, something close to it could be part of everyone's everyday life right now, if the FCC could get its bureaucratic carcass out of the way. The technology for an effective, low-power two-way radio telephone system has existed for more than a dozen years; it was tested and proven in the mid-'70s. But the FCC still has not licensed a single commercial ''cellular'' radio system. Why not? Well, they're going to do it, sometime soon, but they're not sure whether the public is ready for it, or what effect it might have on existing mobile telephone services (read: Ma Bell).
If you care to look in on Joe Flaherty, CBS's head of engineering development at the network's offices on West 52nd Street in New York, you will find some mightily harassed engineers. They have been waiting for more than two years to find out whether the FCC will even consider their request for permission to put up a communications satellite to broadcast, directly to people's homes (among other places), something called high definition television (HDTV).
Briefly, HDTV is to conventional TV what hi-fi stereo is to the old 78 rpm phonograph. HDTV means a picture nearly twice as wide and with more than twice as much picture resolution, or clarity of detail; it also can accommodate stereo sound. It is not exactly a revolutionary idea, since the basic concept has been under development (mostly in Japan, but also in CBS's shop) for the past decade.
Why won't the FCC turn Joe and his boys loose with their new system? Well, because nobody's sure it will work or whether the public is ready for it or what effect it might have on the conventional TV system.
CBS has been here before. They proposed a color TV system before the black-and-white system was even established, in the mid-forties; the FCC rejected it because the color system was not compatible with the black-and-white system. But this time the CBS engineers have already figured out (so they say) ways to make HDTV completely compatible with the conventional system. So who can lose?
We can, as long as our most prolific and productive technologies are throttled by a perfect bureaucracy whose motto seems to be, ''Do as little as possible, and if that doesn't work, do it over again.''