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FCC reboot gives us improved license searches

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Ever want to know how many licenses Clear Channel actually owns? How about AT&T or Verizon? For years the FCC has had searchable online databases for distinct services, like broadcast radio, but not all have been equally easy to use or find. At the same time many entities own many different types of licenses–for instance many broadcast stations also have licenses for remote trucks or studio-to-transmitter links. Now that search just got a little easier.

On Tuesday the FCC announced the launch of its new License View tool which allows a user to search the entire database of wireless service licenses, from cellular to ham radio, FM broadcast to direct broadcast satellite. The new tool gives quick search access to the over 3 million licenses granted by the FCC that’s as fast as a google search.

In addition to the web page interface the Commission also makes the entire database available for download as a CSV file, which can be opened by spreadsheet application like Excel, or text file. These are delivered as 600 MB text files that expand to 3.6 GB once uncompressed. You definitely need to be on a good broadband connection to even think about downloading these files. On a one megabit connection it would take 75 minutes, whereas a ten megabit connection would get ‘er done in just under 8 minutes.

The FCC also provides an API which permits other sites to create applications that can access the FCC’s online database in order to process and reuse the data which is currently being updated once a week. The Commission promises it will be updated more frequently beginning in October.

As a frequent user of the FCC’s broadcast license databases I can say unequivocally that the new License View tool is a heck of a lot easier and quicker to use. That said, the depth of information is still relatively shallow. While it quickly returns ownership, call sign, license type and license expiration date, it doesn’t return any other important data like power levels, geographic coordinates or even city of license. You can use the call letters or FRN numbers you obtain to do a more in depth search in the FCC’s division databases, but then it’s a two step process.

If there’s a particular station or owner that you want to look up the License View tool is very useful. But at this stage it’s less useful for someone trying to determine all the license owners in her home town, or figure out how many stations a company owns in a given city or state. At the very least it would be great if the individual FRN numbers or call letters would hotlink to the licensee’s entry in the appropriate database. If I search on Clear Channel I’d like to be able to click on one of the license results and immediately get technical data on the station. As it is, I have to take the call letters or FRN number and punch it into the AM Query or FM Query page.

Now, it’s only fair to acknowledge that the License View tool is in beta, and perhaps a clever programmer can use the API to make the data all the more useful. Nevertheless this is a definite step forward in transparency and public access to information about the users of the public spectrum.

It will be much more useful when the results link to the in depth technical, geographical and ownership information for each license. It really is time for to be able to find out what owners control which broadcast, satellite and wireless services–and where–as easily as a google search.

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