A tech revolution in print and online

That was also the year that Netscape, the first Web browser, came online. The business plan for Amazon.com was written. America Online was offering dial-up Internet service. The world’s first commercial text message was sent.

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It was about that time that technology started to change so fast that Congress and other policymakers had a hard time keeping pace. Over the next 15 years, enormous industries would take shape (think satellite television, DVDs and GPS navigation systems) and new companies with funny names would become major economic players (think Google and Yahoo).

These developments would transform the legal framework for the country’s communications. Just 18 months after The Hill’s first issue, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act, designed to open the major telephone networks to competitors.

What Congress didn’t anticipate was how quickly technology would create new competition of its own: wireless services competing with landline services, Web-powered phone services competing with cell phones and landlines, and online video competing with cable television.

Reed Hundt, who was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission when The Hill launched, said Internet and mobile services are the biggest challenges that have surfaced since 1994.

“That was the year the Internet became a consumer and commercial network,” he said. “Before it was for scientists and virtually inaccessible.

“The proliferation of the browser made it possible for anyone to have their own webpage. The new structure of the cellular industry drove prices down. We moved from fixed-line to mobile,” he said. “Now we’re seeing some of the same issues of that day in the context of broadband.”

Lawmakers are now wrestling with how Internet companies should manage their networks and how they should be allowed to use consumers’ personal information.

They’re looking at how to create digital health records and broadband-powered smart-grid systems — questions that didn’t exist 15 years ago.

The Hill (the newspaper, that is) has undergone its own technological transformation. While each reporter had a computer, the newsroom at one point had a single e-mail address. For each edition, editors had to save the pages onto a disk (remember those?) and drive it to the printer’s office.

The website launched in 1997, but it was updated only once a week. Reporters started toting BlackBerrys four years ago.

Perhaps in another 15 years, congressional members will be able to beam their floor votes over secure wireless networks and reporters will be able to read staffers’ minds with the help of a newfangled device.

But we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.