FCC running on dial-up

The federal agency tasked with bringing the country’s technology into the 21st Century is stuck in the 1990s.

Technology at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is old, out of date and riddled with glitches, officials say.

That’s already led to Web system crashes this year and could continue to haunt the commission in coming months, as it looks to oversee media mega-mergers, write a host of new regulations and plan for a major auction of the nation's airwaves.

For many watchers, the situation is nothing new.

“Their website’s been a disaster for as long as I can remember,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the House Commerce subcommittee that oversees the FCC and a former radio station owner who dealt often with the commission. 

“The search engine is horrible, the website stinks... When I was in the business you’d try to plug in your call letters or whatever; never could find anything,” he added. “It’s horrible.”

The flaws burst into the open during the commission’s recent efforts to write new regulations for net neutrality, the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally regardless of which websites people are visiting.

A massive outpouring of emotion about the contentious plans, which critics warn would lead to "fast lanes" for wealthy companies and slower service for everyone else, caused the comment system to crash twice in recent weeks: once after comedian John Oliver slammed the proposal on his HBO show and again as comments were set to close Tuesday.

The crashes forced the commission to delay the deadline for comments until Friday.

The comment system for regulating access to websites like Netflix and Hulu was built back in 1996, before either of those companies was ever conceived and when dial-up Internet was king.

“When the [electronic comment filing system] was created in 1996, the Commission presumably didn’t imagine it would receive more than 100,000 electronic comments on a single telecommunications issue,” chief information officer David Bray wrote in a blog post on Monday.

Instead, the FCC received well more than 1 million comments on the net neutrality proposal, more than any other rulemaking in its history.

But it’s not just the comment system that’s out of date.

About 40 percent of its technology is older than a decade, the FCC claimed earlier this year.

The commission is also using more than 200 antiquated IT systems that can’t communicate with each other. The systems are so bad, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told lawmakers in the spring, that it costs more to fix them every year than it would to buy new systems.

“The FCC has been forced by budget restrictions to operate with an IT infrastructure that would be unacceptable to any well-managed business,” he wrote in a blog post this week.

To help get up to date, the commission asked Congress for an extra $13 million for IT upgrades this year, as part of a broader $35 million increase overall.

Supporters of the commission are quick to point out that its entire budget comes from fees it charges companies and that are tacked onto subscribers’ bills. In other words, none of the commission’s spending adds to the federal deficit. 

The House, however, has pushed back. Lawmakers this week passed a funding bill largely along party lines that slashed the agency’s budget by $17 million from the $323 million it received last year, amounting to $52 million less than it requested.

According to lawmakers like Walden, money isn’t the FCC’s problem.

“I don’t buy it,” he said. “We’re going to investigate, see what they’ve done with the millions of dollars they’ve been given over the years, how that money has been used or misspent. I think there’s a lot more to that story that hasn’t been fully vetted.”

He compared the FCC's problems to the troubles that plagued HealthCare.Gov in its early days, and questioned if there could be a broader problem with how the government tries to build functioning websites.

“Before we just throw money at it, let’s figure out how much money did they ask for, how much have they gotten, what have they done with it going forward,” he said.

Democrats protested the budget cuts, which they said are only destined to make matters worse.

“I think we need to give enough support to the FCC and other government agencies to do their job,” Energy and Commerce ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) told The Hill.

“When we shortchange them, we shortchange the country because that job can’t be done on the cheap.”