Telecom Act at 20: Assessing the Rewrite

Today (Feb. 8) marks the 20th anniversary of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which updated the Communications Act of 1934 let cable into the phone business and phones into cable.

B&C/Multichannel News polled some policymakers and watchers to weigh in on the impact of the principally deregulatory rule rewrite and to offer up a birthday wish if they liked.

Rick Boucher , former chair, House Communications Subcommittee

“My involvement in formulating the ‘96 act began in 1988 when I joined with then Sen. Al Gore in introducing legislation to allow telephone companies to offer cable TV service (multi-channel video distribution services) in their telephone service areas.

“That measure became the first plank in the 96 act, and it was joined by a provision to enable cable companies and other competitors into the local telephone market, a provision to create greater competition in the long-distance market by setting the conditions for the entry of the Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs) into the nationwide long-distance market and a provision enabling the RBOCs to manufacture telecommunications equipment. I was active throughout the committee process in processing the 96 act and served as a member of the conference committee.

“My ‘birthday wish’ for the act is that Congress adopt much-needed legislation recognizing the digital and mobile era into which telecommunications has emerged. The 96 act was about analog services and to a large extent "plain old telephone services.” These provisions will help to modernize the 96 act for the digital era:

1. Congress should pass legislation which declares that broadband is an information service not subject to common carrier regulation. The legislation should also give statutory permanence to strong network neutrality guarantees along the lines of the FCC's 2010 open Internet order. Such a bill allows both network neutrality proponents and the proponents of light touch regulation of broadband to achieve their major legislative objectives and puts to rest the longest standing and most contentious telecommunications debate of the 21st century. It would also remove the uncertainty about future broadband regulation which is restraining broadband investment.

“2. Congress should recognize in legislation the advanced nature of the Internet protocol transition and set a date, perhaps 2020, for the sunset of the old legacy copper network. Every dollar that telephone companies are required by law to expend today maintaining the copper network is a dollar not expended on fiber optics and other advanced 21st-century telecommunications infrastructures.

“3. Another legislative provision should create incentives for government agencies to surrender telecommunications spectrum for auction to commercial wireless carriers. Simply stated, government agencies should be offered a share of the auction proceeds in exchange for a surrender of the spectrum they hold. That approach appears to be working in the case of television broadcasters, and there's every reason to believe it would work well for government agencies. In my mind, that's the best approach to getting large allocations of spectrum onto the commercial auction block quickly and meeting the growing demand for spectrum for mobile data.

“4. Congress should also adopt a Bill of Rights for privacy for Internet users with jurisdiction in the Federal Trade Commission over all telecommunications privacy issues. Providing to Internet users greater assurance that their privacy is protected should result in a greater willingness to use the Internet for commercial purposes.”

Matt Polka, president, American Cable Association

“One of the lessons we should learn from the 1996 Act is that because the communications market is so dynamic and because we do not legislate often, Congress should focus on crafting broader substantive principles, establishing sound procedures to address issues, and letting the FCC handle matters day-to-day with regular oversight.

“American Cable Association members believe any new legislation should be based on the precept that the federal government should permit the communications marketplace to work to the maximum extent possible and intervene only when necessary to ensure the availability of viable and competitive high performance communications networks and advanced services to all Americans.”

FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly

"Today marks the 20th Anniversary of the signing into law of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  I vividly remember the events leading up to that moment and recall the strong leadership of my then boss, House Commerce Committee Chairman Tom Bliley.  

"The signing represented so much promise of what could be and reflected found trust between legislators.  It is a shame that many of the deals struck in the law were not actually honored and many provisions have since been abused beyond recognition by regulators, the courts and advocates.  My wish would be for the Commission to focus on the future of communications, rather than trying to drag new innovations into old fights."

USTelecom President Walter McCormick:

“With its twin pillars competition and deregulation, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 set the stage for the thriving broadband Internet economy we take for granted today. It transformed the communications industry from a group of isolated monopolies to a highly competitive, diverse, and innovative marketplace.

“Consumers are the greatest beneficiaries of these evolutionary changes. Having achieved its core market-opening goals and achieved a fast-paced, dynamic broadband economy, much of the Act is now obsolete. It is time for a refresh. Congress, as the elected representatives of the American people, must ensure that telecom policy addresses today’s challenges, not last century’s, and ensures that we retain our international leadership. “

Randolph May, president, Free State Foundation

“I followed [the Act] very closely as a lawyer practicing in the field and former FCC Associate General Counsel.

“I am happy to extend ‘happy birthday’ wishes to the Telecom Act of 1996, but, frankly, it’s now long past time to be readying ‘good-bye’ wishes too.

At best, the act was a transitional vehicle to help get us from the analog to the digital world. At worse, the statute was insufficiently deregulatory in direction, or at least sufficiently ambiguous that it could be interpreted in an overly regulatory manner, which is what we have now. We need a new Digital Age Communications Act soon, and, at its heart, it needs to have a silo-less market-oriented, competition-based standard to guide the Commission’s regulatory endeavors.”

Sari Feldman, President, American Library Association

“The Telecommunications Act and the E-rate program it created is the engine powering much of the digital transformation underway in America’s nearly 17,000 public library locations.  In 1996, only 28 percent of public libraries provided public Internet access, compared with over 99 percent who report this today.  Great hanks to Senators [Jay] Rockefeller, [Olympia] Snowe and [Ed] Markey for their foresight in enabling these strides in both public access and innovation!”

National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Michael Powell

Powell was traveling, but in an essay in the Federal Communications Law Journal at George Washington University Law School,  Powell said this of the Act:

“When I was FCC Chairman I frequently testified before Senator John McCain’s Commerce Committee. The Senator always began with a pointed question to me: “Was the 1996 Telecommunications Act a success, yes or no?” He wanted me to say no, given that he voted against the Act. I always  answered emphatically, “Yes.…

“Sadly, the exceptional bipartisan consensus that gave birth to the 1996 Act and its liberating regulatory framework is breaking down. Now, the ambiguity of the Act—only getting worse with time—is being used to resurrect a muscular regulatory model that places renewed (and unfounded) faith in regulators to manage the Internet. The trends are ominous and cause me to rethink how I would answer Senator McCain today. I confess, I am wavering.”

Consumer Technology Association President Gary Shapiro

"Twenty years after it became law, the Telecom Act still helps encourage new technology and innovation," he said in a Birthday Greeting statement distributed to the press corps. "As we said at the time, the Act would aid our successful transition to HDTV, move in the right direction on spectrum and enable flexibility in product offering and consumer choice. As we also said at the time, mandating V Chip technology would accomplish little and hinder better parental option technologies.

"But overall, in the last two decades, the Act has not hindered companies from creating new products and services, and thanks to the Internet, new services and business models have benefitted the American people."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.