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Eighteen Years Is Enough For Federal Telecommunications Act


Congress has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to modernize and simplify federal policies governing communications and technology.


A child born the day President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act is now old enough to vote, gamble, and join the military, yet the laws governing the flow of our nation’s information and technology have barely modernized over the last 18 years. The Telecom Act of 1996 was designed during the last days of the analog age, when calling someone’s mobile meant their pager, connecting to the Internet meant dialing up AOL 2.0, and CD’s were the cutting edge technology in  the music industry. The law has served us well, but it’s far past time to infuse it with a 21st-century breath of fresh air.

Fortunately, Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.) recently announced that they would begin the process of rewriting the law for the digital age. This arduous and perhaps thankless task will take over a year to complete, but it’s among the most important work Congress will do during President Obama’s second term. More than ever, our economy depends heavily on technology, and innovations in the communications sector are constantly changing the way we do business.


The 1996 law--itself a revision of a law from 1934--attempted to prepare America’s communications industry for the upcoming digital revolution through reforms including the deregulation of broadcasting, opening the telecom industry to greater competition, and creating separate regulatory environments for telephone, television, and IT service providers. These solutions worked in the ‘90s--and were arguably effective beyond their expiration date--but no longer fit modern telecommunication systems.

New technology calls not only for new solutions, but also for a new mindset. For example, the “telephone company” as it existed in 1996 is now a thing of the past. Today’s service providers are also players in the television, Internet, and data markets, and are competing with cable, satellite, and fiber-optics operators. The antiquated divisions between telephone, television, and IT don’t suit this environment and have fallen out of sync with each other, offering some companies unmerited institutional advantages over others. Effective policies allow service providers of all stripes to compete against each other on the same playing field.

Moreover, the Telecom Act of 1996 barely mentions the Internet, which then was a relatively new medium whose potential Congress could not possibly have grasped. Upton and Walden’s rewrite offers a golden opportunity for Washington to set its Internet regulatory policy for the next generation, and the bill ought to be crafted in the same mindset as last month’s D.C. Circuit Court decision, which struck down the Obama administration’s Open Internet Order. For the Internet to remain truly open to innovators, the FCC cannot be allowed to impose net neutrality regulations, which would in effect reduce the Internet to yet another tightly regulated public utility.

[sharequote align="center"]A rewrite offers Washington a chance to set Internet regulatory policy for the next generation[/sharequote]

Congressmen Walden and Upton have repeatedly noted that “fostering innovation” is a primary goal of the rewrite, and given the FCC’s recent track record, the greatest stand they could take for the future of Internet freedom would be to greatly limit the commission’s authority to impose future regulations on the Internet. Rather, Congress should take the lead in delineating Internet regulations so that the focus may remain on growth and competition, not on one-size-fits-all mediocrity masquerading as “fairness.”

In the broadest possible terms, Congress has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to modernize and simplify federal policies governing communications and technology. Reps. Upton and Walden have gotten off to a good start, and have indicated that they will approach the task with a pro-growth, pro-competition mindset. It’s now up to advocates of tech freedom to ensure that Congress produces a rewritten bill worthy of that spirit.

Erik Telford is senior vice president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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