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Telecommunications Act is showing its age

It is now 2015, the setting for the movie Back to the Future II.  Judging by the technologies previewed in the movie, they were not half wrong about what 2015 would look like.

Technological reality caught up with movie magic. Sadly, telecommunications regulation has not kept up with technology.

{mosads}Many marvels we now enjoy were released within the past few years. Most of them rely on the omnipresent wired and wireless broadband connections that link to the global network we have all come to depend on. Yet these miraculous pieces of technology are regulated under the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  

You read that right. Our communications laws have not seen a overhaul in 19 years. To say that a lot has happened in 19 years would be an understatement. The last time our nation’s telecommunications regulations were updated, Google didn’t exist. The world had its hopes, but no one knew how transformative, how magical the Internet would be, and how connected our society was about to become. The 1996 Act mentioned pay phones more than it mentioned the Internet.

When’s the last time you used a pay phone? 

In the mid-nineties, the Internet was in an embryonic stage. Most people who knew about the net were connecting to it over copper phone lines — and getting kicked off when someone else in the house picked up an extension. Those with call waiting learned to dial *70 before we dialed out, to prevent an incoming call from ending our session! And the dial-up modem sounds — the click whirr bongs that indicated a connection in progress — only highlighted the fact that until you heard those sounds, you were not connected.

In Back to the Future predictions of 2015, USA Today used flying cameras to capture news footage of the Hill Valley town hall being vandalized.

Flying cameras are, in fact, widely available today.  Camera-equipped drones guided via mobile broadband and global positioning satellites have become consumer goods cheaper than a desktop computer.

Thumb print sensors were built into panels throughout Back to the Future’s 2015, as people used their fingerprints to pay for goods and unlock their homes.

In our world, Thumb print recognition has become commonplace with the introduction of the iPhone 5, conditioning an entire generation to unlock phones with their finger. Plus, with the rollout of Apple Pay, which uses fingerprint identification for verification, we are now literally using our fingerprints to pay for things. (Thank goodness a Pepsi doesn’t cost $50!)

Back to the Future predicted the rise of flat-panel televisions with hundreds of channels available, commonplace video calling, and connected glasses.

Google Glass is on the ropes, but technologists are thrilled about the potential of Oculus Rift, so eyewear is certainly next up on the BTTF checklist – right about on schedule. Flying cars and hover boards aren’t yet here, but our top scientists are working on it.

Lawmakers have made piecemeal attempts to introduce updates, but a fundamental rewrite is required because it’s not just about the last 19 years; the 1996 Act is based on the Communications Act of 1934, itself based on laws from the 1800s meant to regulate the railroad industry! 

To catch up to the present and to aid innovators in getting us to the future – and who can imagine what that future could hold – we need a modern, forward looking Communications Act.

McAuliffe is federal affairs manager at Americans for Tax Reform and executive director of Digital Liberty.


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