1996 Communications Act needs an upgrade


By Andrew Ysiano

These days there is no shortage of worthwhile ideas our legislators in the nation’s capital could pursue to promote sustained economic growth. From simplifying our burdensome tax code to enacting comprehensive immigration reform, we know the list is long and diverse. However, the political will or urgency to accomplish these and other important objectives is often lacking. Fortunately, there is growing consensus around one issue that could be a precursor to broader bipartisan collaboration on issues and set this country on track for a new wave of technological progress and economic prosperity.

The issue is reforming the decades old Communications Act, and there is a growing chorus of business leaders, policy experts, and academics who are working with some in Congress to make it a priority. Now the California Congressional delegation, led by Representative Anna Eshoo on technology policy, should follow suit.

The laws encapsulated in the Communications Act were last revised in 1996 and oversee the communications and technology sectors that play such a dominant role in our lives and the economy.  It’s no secret that the products, services, and capabilities of today are fundamentally different from what we had – let alone what we could imagine – in the mid 1990’s. Many of us can recall the painstakingly slow dial-up modems and pagers that were so prevalent during the mid 1990’s in comparison to the fast speeds and smartphones of today. It is startling to think the laws that were enacted then are still on the books while so much of the technology we now use – predominately the Internet – was in its infancy.

Today, roughly 87% of adults use the Internet, email, or access the Internet via a mobile device according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. The web has evolved into an inherently mobile platform as basic cell phones have given way to more widespread use of smartphones with an array of built in features and available apps that consumers are demanding. These innovations have been invaluable to the local and national economy when we consider how they empowered businesses – small and large – to create new products and services, expand their reach into new markets, gain new efficiencies, grow their operations, and create jobs.

Moreover, the proliferation of mobile devices that harness the Internet is helping close the digital divide as more and more Americans are able to use mobile devices for Internet connectivity. The Latino community has especially benefited from these developments. According to the same Pew Research Center survey, while Latinos trail other ethnic groups in terms of computer use, they are more likely to own a smartphone than their white and African-American counterparts. And those smartphones provide the same, if not more accommodating, access to the Internet than bulky computers or laptops do.

While all this dramatic progress has occurred, our communications laws have grown stagnate. They are ill-suited for the Internet economy of today, let alone the Internet economy of tomorrow. In turn, these antiquated laws are slowing the pace of innovation by applying outdated regulatory regimes differently depending on the type of technology even though comparable services like Internet, voice, or TV programming can be offered through them.

To ensure continued progress in the networks and technologies that empower so much of our economy, we must modernize these antiquated regulations to reflect new realities. Fortunately, some leaders in Washington have recognized that now is the time to push for a bipartisan, rewrite of the Communication Act that encourages innovation and economic growth. The House Energy and Commerce Committee has already begun soliciting input on possible changes.

Representative Anna Eshoo and California’s Congressional delegation should similarly concentrate on this effort. The American people deserve a reformed regulatory environment that will ensure fundamental consumer protections of privacy and reliability, while providing the pioneers of our digital economy the consistent treatment necessary to compete today. Where other issues have failed, this one issue is finally garnering the broad consensus necessary to compel legislative action.


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