The U.S. House of Representatives Energy & Commerce Committee in January issued the first of several white papers on Modernizing the Communications Act. By January 31, 116 interested parties had submitted comments, giving a variety of reasons for updating the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Consumer groups, public interest advocates, corporations, communications companies, think tanks, broad-based coalitions, civil rights groups, associations of elected officials, regular consumers – you name it, some of everybody, including me, filed comments to explain why the nearly two-decades old latest iteration of the communications act needs revamping (as if longstanding precedent from the 1934 Communications Act still being on the books wasn’t motivation enough).
What’s unique about the E&C #CommActUpdate movement – beyond the fact that more than beltway insiders are weighing in on what, frankly, can be some fairly heady telecommunications policies – is that the rewrite of the Telecommunications Act is something upon which most people agree. Granted, provisions and recommended applications of a new act may very, but consistently, there seems to be widespread agreement that it must be revised. The need for a rewrite is a reality that’s escaped the typical partisan gridlock of Washington, DC, and is something that Congress can carry forward as a major achievement, regardless of what side of the aisle one is situated on.
With the nation still attempting to recover from recession while balancing budget cuts, a growing deficit, battles over entitlements, a slow-to-start healthcare rollout, and too high unemployment – especially for our youth and black and brown populations – the prospect of a divided Congress really pushing forward on a new communications framework seems like a far cry from being able to happen. And yet, there is hope.
Perhaps it's a sign of the time that organizations and individuals with ostensibly divergent interests can unanimously agree that the time has come to revisit the Communications Act. The world is a dramatically different place today than it was 18 years ago, and the policy framework that currently governs this space is full of antiquated protocols based on the technologies of the past.
What we need today is a forward-thinking Act that not only takes into account the new realities of a highly competitive, and increasingly converged media, technology and telecommunications landscape, but also is nimble enough to account for future innovation and an ever-changing, global digital marketplace.
At all times, we want to ensure that our policy protects consumers and promotes competition, but it should also foster innovation and continued opportunities to expand entrepreneurial and broader economic development opportunities.
E&C Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) have taken on the important work of ushering forth a #CommActUpdate. While the ’96 Act took eight years to complete, as long as there remains bipartisan support and the political will to move a rewrite forward, it can and will happen, especially if the multitude of stakeholders who showed up for this first round of white paper responses stay engaged.
High is editor-in-chief of Politics365.