Cellphones were the size of bricks, and the “information super highway” was just entering peoples’ homes the last time Congress updated the nation’s main communications law.
On Wednesday, lawmakers armed with tiny mobile phones that resemble computers and televisions began to slog through the question of whether it’s time to rewrite the Telecommunications Act.
The 1996 law, which clocked in at more than 200 pages, contained just 11 references to the Internet and only one to broadband.
“The changes in technology since the last update in ‘96 have been dramatic, and existing laws have failed to keep pace with the vibrant and dynamic telecommunications industry,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said at Wednesday’s hearing.
One of the most common critiques of the existing law is the way it “silos” different forms of communication, like telephones and broadband Internet. That has posed problems for new services, like phones that operate over broadband lines, known as Voice over Internet Protocol.
Any overhaul of a law first written in 1934 is certain to be a multi-year effort, but Upton and other proponents of change seem to have some momentum on their side with their arguments that a modernization is necessary to keep pace with the times.
Some Democrats, however, argued that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has all the authority it needs.
“The Communications Act continues to provide the FCC with ample authority to exercise its role in this new environment,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), though she said she supported a review to spur new breakthroughs.
“Innovation, innovation, innovation. These goals were embedded in the ‘96 act, and they remain just as important today,” said Eshoo, who represents parts of Silicon Valley.
Casting a shadow over the reform effort was an appeals court ruling on Tuesday that struck a blow to the FCC and the Obama administration’s attempts to regulate the Internet.
On Tuesday, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the FCC’s net neutrality regulations, which the commission had developed to mandate neutral treatment of all content on the Internet.
Republicans who have opposed the rules claimed victory, saying the decision highlights the problems with the siloed nature of the current law.
“This is yet another example of why it is vital that we take a hard look at the laws in this space and reconcile them with the realities of technology,” said communications subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.).
Democrats, however, claimed victory in the court’s upholding of the FCC’s authority to regulate broadband Internet.
Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) said the authority of the FCC to regulate the Internet was the “crux of the debate” before the court.
The court decision could allow the FCC to reclassify the Internet as another form of communications service and then impose new net neutrality rules.
Democrats have urged the FCC to go ahead and issue new regulations, but it is unclear if FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler will take that step. He has said he would look at “all available options.”
The subcommittee heard from four former leaders of the FCC who split over whether the 1996 act needed a massive overhaul.
The law has “given the FCC the ability to achieve the fundamental goals,” said Reed Hundt, who led the FCC during much of the Clinton administration.
Richard Wiley, who served as FCC chairman under former Presidents Nixon and Ford, disagreed.
“I think the very fact we didn’t have the Internet really developed, we didn’t have broadband, we didn’t have all the technological changes that have occurred since 1996, really gives substance to taking another look,” he said. “I think that gives Congress an opportunity, I think, to perhaps make some suggestions to the regulatory body.”