The Telecommunications Act of 1996: Then, now and beyond

Before the 1996 Telecommunications Act was signed into law, almost no one in America had high-speed Internet access.  Think about that – virtually no broadband just 20 years ago.  Today, a 12-year old believes she has a constitutional right to a broadband connection, a 50-inch HD television, and an iPhone. 

The ’96 Act unleashed nearly 1.4 trillion dollars of private sector investment over the next decade that laid the fiber and built the networks that enabled the ecosystem of devices, services and applications that fuel our daily lives.

We are proud of what the ‘96 Act has meant to our country.  

{mosads}That historic law has given birth to new companies and industries. The law started a great telecommunications revolution, and these new companies are its direct beneficiaries. A whole new vocabulary developed, with a distinctively American accent: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Spotify.   

Two decades later, we have entered a new phase in the digital revolution that was set off by the passage of the ’96 Act, as each of our devices, appliances, and everyday machines now connect with one another. Cars are personal computers on wheels. Watching video on our watches isn’t the stuff of Dick Tracy cartoons anymore. Refrigerators can order groceries when the milk runs out. In 1996 we called this new era the “Information Age.”  Today, we should call it the “Internet of Things Age.” 

The ‘96 Act continues to be our communications constitution because we passed it with strong bipartisan support. It’s no wonder that the tenets of the Act – promoting competition, expanding consumer choice, spurring economic growth – are principles that both Republicans and Democrats agree on to this day. 

These goals remain as vital today as they were in 1996 when President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law. He signed the bill with a digital pen to represent the bridge we built to the 21st century, literally underwriting the digital revolution.

That’s why we should take time to celebrate the 20th anniversary of this truly historic law. 

Recently some critics of the law have suggested that the ‘96 Telecom Act was written about old rules, about an old network. They have suggested that the bipartisan work we put into that bill no longer applies to telecommunications networks of today.

But if it was just legislation about the old phone network, we would have simply held the bill signing in front of a phone booth. But we didn’t. Instead, we signed the ‘96 Telecom Act in the Library of Congress, the American shrine of knowledge. 

Today, because of the ‘96 Act, volumes of information extend beyond the stacks of books in the Jefferson Library and into the homes and schools of every kid in America. The pencils and paper tablets of yesteryear have given way to the pixels and electronic tablets of today. Kids growing up in Massachusetts and Texas can now read the works of Jefferson on their iPad.

As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the ’96 Act, we believe that the law we passed two decades ago will continue to promote the innovation, investment, and the free flow of ideas that will drive our economy well beyond the 21st century. The 1996 Telecommunications Act was a model of bipartisanship and a roadmap for how Congress can once again begin to function together.

The ‘96 Act was the future then. The ‘96 Act is the future today. The ‘96 Act will be the future tomorrow.  

Markey is Massachusetts’ junior senator, serving since 2013. He sits on the Commerce, Science and Transportation; the Environment and Public Works; the Foreign Relations; and the Small Business and Entrepreneurship committees. Fields served in the House from 1981 to 1997. Both were instrumental in creating the Telecommunications Act.

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