The Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday stayed close to its philosophical roots and voted unanimously to stop using Form 325, its annual collection of cable operator data such as network structure, programming, number of subscribers and system-wide capacity for all systems that supported more than 20,000 subscribers.
"Because of marketplace, operational, and technological changes that have occurred over time, the Report and Order finds that the form has become increasingly obsolete," the FCC said. "By eliminating the Form 325 filing requirement, the Commission has lifted a significant regulatory burden imposed on cable operators and ensured that its rules reflect current marketplace realities."
Given that the FCC did not use much (if any) data collected via this paperwork, in November 2017 the agency voted unanimously to seek comment from the public, cable operators and other industry stakeholders regarding the form's future. The data collection paperwork was first developed in 1966; the last time the FCC changed it was almost two decades ago, according to the FCC.
"Additionally, the Commission has made limited use of Form 325 data in recent years, and much of the same information is available from alternative sources," the federal agency said.
Getting rid of this onerous documentation liberates cable operators, especially as the information gathered is available from "other authoritative sources," wrote FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. Removing bureaucracy is in line with Pai's stated goals: To simplify doing business with the government using more of an agile, corporate approach.
This step is one of many data-collection procedures government is fond of doing -- for no apparent reason. And more busywork forms will follow the same fate, the commissioners cautioned.
Added Michael O'Reilly in a separate statement: "...This item is part of a series of proceedings to help modernize existing Commission regulations imposed on broadcast and cable companies. It is both appropriate and exciting to see this one completed, and I hope we can quickly move to the eight or so other items that have already been briefed and should be ready to go to final action. Concurrently, we should turn our attention to finding the next dozen, and the next dozen, and the dozen after that of unnecessary rules and reporting requirements that can be eliminated."
Two sides to the story
Some industry groups -- such as the American Cable Association -- support the change.
ACA urges the Commission to eliminate Form 325, as it no longer serves the purpose for which it was originally intended, and because it creates an unnecessary burden for cable operators, especially small operators with limited resources.
But some wondered why the FCC did not use the data, instead of tanking the form -- especially as they said it's the sole form of collected data sworn to by operators.
While commissioners were unanimous, the same sentiments did not apply to everyone outside the halls of government.
Public Knowledge, a 501(c)(3) organization that "promotes freedom of expression, an open Internet, and access to affordable communications tools and creative works," and works to shape policy on behalf of the "public interest filed comments about Form 325.
Primarily, Public Knowledge said, Form 325 collects data that is unavailable elsewhere: "Most importantly, all providers filing Form 325 must certify that the information is accurate under penalty of perjury. This makes the information collected via Form 325 far more reliable than any other source," wrote Public Knowledge Attorneys Harold Feld and Adrian Attar in February 2018.
"To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the fault is not in the Form 325, but in the FCC, that it fails to utilize the data collected to fulfill its statutory obligations," the attorneys wrote. "Rather than eliminate Form 325, the Commission should instead focus on how best to utilize this important and detailed data set that should be informing the Commission’s decisions, and reported out on a regular basis to Congress and the general public."
— Alison Diana, Editor, Broadband World News. Follow us on Twitter or @alisoncdiana.