An (un)happy birthday for the Telecommunications Act

Greg Nash

This year marks 21 years since passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. While there’s usually overwhelming excitement to reach a 21st birthday, this particular anniversary is hardly cause for celebration. Over the last two decades, there have been extraordinary advances that completely transformed our understanding of technology and created a world this is more connected than ever before.

And yet, even as this sector continues fostering advancements that are driving America’s economic and technological leadership globally, we are letting rules from the analog age govern the digital era. That’s a counterproductive reality that will negatively impact innovation.  In fact, it already has.  Some companies have found themselves navigating a complex web of rules just because they step into the Act’s outdated regulatory silos.

{mosads}It’s more critical than ever that 2017 be the year—under this new administration—that we substantively modernize the act and develop a new policy framework that meets the realities of our converging technological landscape.


The outdated nature of the Act is hard to miss. Signed by then-President Clinton, the world was still without Google, Facebook, and even Apple’s iPhone. The Act mentioned the term “payphones” more times than “Internet.” Yes, you read that correctly. 

We all know the telecom landscape of today is vastly different. We can use one device to access our email, text messages, news, TV shows and more—all while still being able to call our friends and loved ones. And we are in the process of developing next generation wireless networks (5G) that will produce speeds up to 100 times faster than our current 4G networks.

5G networks hold tremendous promise as they will take important services like remote health monitoring, distance learning, and real-time data tracking of city operations and resources to a whole new level, and in turn, improve quality of life.

There have, of course, been efforts by policymakers to update the aging act. While those efforts spurred a good debate and provided the intellectual foundation for how our laws should be realigned to meet current technological trends, those efforts have not yet delivered the comprehensive updates needed. Whether through multiple smaller pieces of legislation or an overarching rewrite of the act, it’s time to begin modernizing telecommunications policy and scrub the outdated text that still remains and was derived from the Communications Act of 1934.

Yes, 1934. Fortunately, it’s heartening to hear that lawmakers like Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) are going to make modernizing the act a priority this year.

If our nation stands a chance at continuing to lead the world in developing innovative technologies and services while meeting evolving consumer demands, it needs to clear out old laws that restrain the realities of today. 

The Telecommunications Act is decades passed its expiration date. It’s well past time our lawmakers develop laws that accurately reflect the world we live in today and keep the door open to technologies to come. 

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

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags FCC Federal Communications Commission John Thune Katie McAuliffe Telecommunications Act

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