A look back at the Telecommunications Act of 1996

A look back at the Telecommunications Act of 1996
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Regarding the Telecommunications Act of 1996, allow this old man a bit of braggadocio. As the principal author of that Act, I dedicated five years of my life toward getting it passed. Let me also say that lots of others were active in its passage, in particular former Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.).

The Act had starts and stalls; it once passed the Senate but not the House. After a painful birth, it became one of the finest pieces of bipartisan legislation we have ever passed. It serves as the bedrock for all the internet, cellphones and other great innovations that we’ve had in communications.

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In 1996, most households depended on landlines, and the providers for local service were Bell telephone companies, and for long distance service, AT&T. A long history of divestiture and court orders was involved in trying to bring competition to both services, and Congress needed to act. This was one of the pressing needs the Telecommunications Act addressed. Twenty years later, many homes no longer have a landline.

At the time the Act passed, cellphones were emerging as the next big thing. The Telecommunications Act helped develop the cellular network by encouraging its deployment. Today, most of the country has mobile service and it is hard for many young people to imagine life without a cellphone.

I have been amused by articles I have read that state that the internet did not exist when the 1996 Act was passed. Of course, we did have the internet in 1996, and we were careful not to try to impose rules and regulations that might have hampered its adoption and expansion. In many ways, the certainty that permitted the phone companies to move forward and invest also meant expansion and ubiquity for the internet. When the Act was making its way through Congress, I frequently stated its purpose as permitting everyone to get into each other’s business. We tried very hard to make the Act as deregulatory as possible, and to permit expedited judicial review in certain circumstances. At the time, there were efforts to try to regulate the internet, and these attempts were defeated. I think all of my colleagues were intrigued by what might lie ahead. Although we had no idea what might develop, I think all of us had a sense of the tremendous innovation and creativity that the internet and an unshackled communications industry could bring to our people. 

The law had an international impact, as well. At the time of the Telecommunications Act’s passage, most of Europe was trying to deregulate its telecommunications industry, too. As many will recall, the Post Office provided telephone service in several countries, and thus were government-run. As we were working on the Act, the newly formed European Union was monitoring every step of our deliberations and requesting copies of what we were considering. Shortly after the Telecommunications Act was signed into law, the European Union also passed legislation that helped deregulate their industry. The ripple effect of the 1996 Act internationally helped build competition and investment in new technologies. 

Although we still have persistent gaps of coverage in some areas of the United States, efforts are being made to address them, either by land or by satellite service. Since I come from a rural state, this has always been one of my primary concerns. I can remember as a child when basic phone service came to my farm. Today, farmers depend on the Internet for planting, monitoring soil moisture and the markets. 

Presently, we enjoy many benefits from the ubiquity of cellphones, Wi-Fi and tons of services that were only imagined in 1996. The stunning amount of investment and creativity that was unleashed by the passage of the Telecommunications Act has served our country well. 

Yes, Congress once did pass a great piece of deliberative, bipartisan legislation that changed global communications for the better. No one has proposed repealing or even substantially changing it; it brought us a blend of deregulation and universal service, something impossible to find in today’s divided Congress. For once, we can say, “Well done, Congress!”

Sen. Pressler served in was the House of Representatives from 1975 to 1979, and the Senate from 1979 to 1997. Sen. Pressler was chairman of the Congress Science and Transportation Committee at the time of the Telecommunication Act’s passage.

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