After fits and starts – and an 80-minute delay – FCC’s second online demonstration of its new electronic public file system for TV stations finally got off the ground late yesterday afternoon. And for those of you who gave up when the Commission couldn’t get the audio to work for more than an hour, take heart – they’ve scheduled yet another demo for today – AUGUST 1 – at 12 Noon (ET).  (The link is to the FCC’s "events" webpage.  As of 9:00 a.m. today that page had not yet been updated to include a sign-in option for today’s meeting.)

If you haven’t yet taken a look at the system the FCC has come up with, these demonstrations give you a very useful glimpse. Additionally, as of yesterday (July 31), the upload site is live for preview/test purposes – although the usefulness of visiting it today (i.e., the day before the online public file rule takes effect) may be limited if you haven’t had at least the basic introduction the demos provide.

The good news is that the system isn’t CDBS. To the contrary, the interface that the uploading station sees appears to be cleanly and logically laid out, with conventional buttons and options that – if they work – should make uploading reasonably simple. CommLawBlog gives a big thumbs up to the design.  Kudos to Greg Elin, who reportedly headed up the design team and who was the principal presenter during the demonstration. (I did, however, have occasion to observe that the depiction of the station’s service area on the sample screen the FCC showed us looked disturbingly like a drawing of a breast. Good thing that image isn’t going to be broadcast . . .)

As to the way the system will function in the real world, we here at CommLawBlog are cautiously optimistic. It looks like it should work.

But without having had the opportunity to test drive it at all, we’re not yet prepared to take a position. And there’s reason to suspect that the FCC may not have been completely thorough and thoughtful in all respects.

Bear in mind, the 80-minute delay in the start of yesterday’s session was caused by the apparent inability of the FCC – that would be (Irony Alert!) the Federal Communications Commission – to get its phone bridge to work. That alone doesn’t inspire confidence. And, according to a message typed on the online video feed early during the delay period, that inability in turn arose because more than 700 people were logged onto the phone bridge. 

Um, what did the FCC expect? Its new public file system is going to be a necessary part of the lives of thousands of TV stations starting tomorrow, and yesterday afternoon’s demonstration was for most of those stations the first time that they would have a chance to check out the system. (Yes, I know that there was a demonstration on July 17 – but the online feed of that show reportedly didn’t provide adequate access. And yes, I know that there was a second demonstration on Monday morning, July 30, at 9:00 – but since that demo wasn’t announced until late on the preceding Friday afternoon, the Commission couldn’t reasonably have expected a huge turnout. That left yesterday’s show, so the FCC could and should have expected a throng.)

Additionally, it was apparent during the demonstration that the system is still a work-in-progress in a number of respects. Some functions aren’t yet working, some aren’t working with pre-Version 7 versions of Internet Explorer, etc. While this is to be expected in any complex system like this one, you’d think that, before the Commission forces thousands of broadcast stations to use the system, the Commission would have tried to work out more of the bugs.

And one more cause for hesitation: while the Commission folks indicated that help would be available online and by phone once the system kicks in, it looks like their expectation is that most users will familiarize themselves with the system by reading through an extensive – and apparently to-be-regularly-updated – FAQ page. For sure, FAQ’s are a well-established feature of the Internet environment, but it’s not clear that, as a federal administrative agency imposing affirmative obligations on thousands of regulatees, the FCC can appropriately rely on something as informal as an FAQ page to instruct those regulatees how to meet those obligations.

So the preliminary bottom line is: the system looks very sharp (“neato” was one oddly anachronistic descriptive reportedly submitted by an attendee of yesterday’s demo) and may prove user-friendly. Certainly it appears to have been designed in large measure with the uploading station in mind. That’s a great comfort (particularly for those of us who have wrestled with CDBS for years).

But this is a lot like buying a car. The new model always looks great in the ads and great in the showroom. It probably also feels great to drive when you take it for a test spin under the watchful eye of the dealer in the passenger seat. But the real questions don’t usually pop up until you’ve brought it home and driven it in all kinds of conditions — and your 16-year-old student driver and your 85-year-old parent have also tried to drive it (because, bear in mind, most licensees will likely be relying on station staff to handle most, if not all, uploading to the system).

So rather than give the FCC’s new system any final thumbs up (or thumbs down), let’s reserve judgment until we’ve all had a chance to use it in everyday, real-world situations. 

For those of you who have not yet sat in on one of the FCC’s demonstrations, we strongly recommend that you take the time to do so at Noon (ET) today, August 1.