The Telecom Act of 1996 Governs Tech from #17yrsAgo; It Shouldn’t Govern Today’s Innovations

Do you remember what you were doing 17 years ago? Well, the Telecommunications Act does. That’s because it has stayed the same since it was signed into law way back in 1996.      

A lot has changed since 1996 in the telecommunications sector; however, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 hasn't changed at all.  Through this week's blog posts and our twitter handle @DigitalLiberty, Digital Liberty is calling attention to the fact that we should not apply these arcane regulations governing near obsolete TDM technology, like copper wires, to the Next Generation technologies, like fiber networks, and moves to completely IP based communications.  

Regulations are just a snap shot of the time, and aren't updated frequently enough to address changes in basic infrastructure or business models.  "Internet" was only mentioned twice in the entire Act, which had been under way for ten years prior to its enaction.  

In his speech prior to signing the act President Clinton said, “Today our world is being remade yet again by an information revolution, changing the way we work, the way we live, the way we relate to each other… But this revolution has been held back by outdated laws, designed for a time when there was… no such thing as a personal computer.” Change the last line to “no such thing as Google, YouTube, Facebook, smartphones, mobile applications, etc.,” and that statement would apply to the world we know today. 

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was appropriate for the time period in which it was created.  At that time, the Internet was inaccessible to much of the American public, instead being used primarily by the federal government, major academic institutions, and hobbyists. Internet connections were through dial-up modems, a temperamental service at best.  Phones only had one application – to make phone calls.       

The times have certainly changed. According to U.S. Telecom, private sector broadband investment totals nearly $1.2 trillion since 1996.  Pew Research Center recently reported that, as of December 2012, 45 percent of American adults have a smartphone. And as of January 2013, 26 percent of American adults own an e-book reader and 31 percent own a tablet computer.

Perhaps most telling is that there are now more wireless devices than people in the U.S.  Internet access now affects every aspect of our lives. From searching and applying for jobs to seeking medical advice to finding out the fastest route home from the mall, instant access to technology has become a staple in daily life.  

Things don’t appear to be changing any time soon.  A new Cisco report estimates there will be more smartphones, tablets, laptops and internet-connected mobile devices than people in the world before the end of this year. Mobile applications have revolutionized the way we communicate with each other, educate ourselves, monitor our health and even monitor the energy efficiencies of our households. With more and more applications for wireless technologies coming out every day, connected devices aren't just your mobile or computer they are your car and your house too.  We are, put simply, living in a very different world.

Any new regulations should be clearly thought through with built in flexibility for ever changing technologies and business models.  Congress should give the FCC direction so they do not apply these stilted regulations to one of the major movers of the American Economy.  However, even in 1996 Congress did give the FCC a deregulatory direction for getting rid of out dated laws and forbearance for testing new technologies.  From experience we know that once give power any arm of the government is more than slow to releqesh it.   While waiting for new direction from Congress, the FCC has the opportunity to set an example and use the deregulatory provisions built into the 1996 Telecommunications Act rather than attempting to expand its power based on outdated ideas of what constitutes connectedness and competition.

If the United States wants to continue to be the leader in technological innovation, our regulatory policies must reflect the dynamic Internet age that we are living in today.   

Our technology has been modernized in the last 17 years, why not the laws that govern them?