Will the Telecommunications Act Get a Much-needed Update as It Turns 21?

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 turns 21 this year — today, in fact. Signed into law by President Bill Clinton on Feb. 8, 1996, it was the first major revision of telecommunications regulation since the passage of the original Communications Act of 1934, which established the Federal Communications Commission and gave it jurisdiction over broadcasting and telephony.

To a large extent, the ’96 Act was an attempt to update the regulation of a telephone industry that had been fundamentally changed with the 1984 breakup of the old Bell system. Its main thrust was to move away from the regulation of monopolies and toward the encouragement of competition within the telephone industry. The Act had little to say either about the internet or wireless phones.

Of course, two decades is a long time in the world of technology, and telecom is vastly different today than it was then. In 1996, just 16 percent of Americans had mobile phones, which only supported voice communications, with simple text messaging just beginning to appear. Apple’s iPhone, which kicked off the smartphone era in 2007, was still a decade away.

Additionally, less than one-fifth of U.S. households in 1996 were connected to the internet, all of them via dial-up modems with a maximum speed of 33.6 Kbps. It was not until 2004 that the number of homes with broadband exceeded the number of homes with narrowband connections.

Finally, the internet itself was very different in 1996: Amazon.com was barely a year old and was just an online bookstore. Larry Page and Sergey Brin were still graduate students at Stanford working on a project that would become Google. Mark Zuckerberg was 12 years old and in junior high school. Concepts such as cloud computing, self-driving cars or the Internet of Things existed only in the realm of science fiction.

The big shift

The big shift from 1996 to 2017 has been the convergence of once-separate media into one overarching digital medium known as the internet: Voice, music, news, photos, video — each of which was a separate medium and a separate industry — have converged as they all have become essentially bits in a single broadband bitstream. And old distinctions, like that between wired and wireless access, have become less meaningful as mobile networks move toward wider availability and higher performance. In the face of these changes, maintaining the regulation of communications in separate silos, represented by different bureaus within the FCC, seems increasingly archaic.

A major rewrite of the Communications Act is a big deal, but may actually happen despite the partisan atmosphere of Washington. Some lawmakers, including Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., whose committee has jurisdiction over such matters, has expressed his desire to begin updating the Act in earnest this year.

At the recent State of the Net conference in Washington, D.C., Thune said, “First, we need to modernize our communications laws to facilitate the growth of the Internet itself. And second, we need to update government policies to better reflect the innovations made possible by the Internet and other digital technologies.”

Some initial efforts in that direction have already been undertaken. Three years ago, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., launched what they acknowledged would be a multi-year effort to examine and update the Act. In 2014, they held an exploratory hearing on communications policy and issued a series of whitepapers on topics such as spectrum policy, competition policy, the role of the FCC, network interconnection, the FCC’s Universal Service Policy and regulation of the market for video content and distribution.

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