A Silver Anniversary Worth Noting | Citizens Against Government Waste

A Silver Anniversary Worth Noting

The WasteWatcher

It has been 25 years since Congress enacted the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  At that time, there was dial-up access to the internet on an AOL account over a modem with at best 6400 baud, which took about 20 seconds to connect, and then once someone got online, there were only a few websites, on which it took at least 30 seconds to load one page.   Since people paid for access by the hour, they usually got off quickly to do something else, and they were also tying up the only phone line in the house or office.  In the ensuing years, the communications ecosystem has changed dramatically in ways that could not have been imagined by that earlier Congress. 

The Telecommunications Act, passed by a Republican-majority Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton established a “light-touch” regulatory regime for the internet.  The law states that it is the “the policy of the United States …  to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet and other interactive computer services, unfettered by Federal or State regulation … ”  Thanks to this  light-touch regulatory regime (with the notable exception of the thankfully short, negative impact of the Open Internet Order), innovation and investment in this then-nascent technology allowed the internet to thrive and grow to the vibrant global economic driver it is today.  And the United States has led the way to this phenomenal success.

Today’s internet evolved through constant research and development, testing, and private sector investments to meet the continually changing consumer demand for faster and more reliable speeds and services.  Americans are able to access the internet for work, school, shopping, social contact, and many other purposes.    This is what both Congress and President Clinton hoped would happen when they decided that the internet should be regulated with a light-touch. 

This 25th anniversary of the Telecommunications Act is a good time to provide a path forward to continuing to improve U.S. communications policy and strategy.

First, there should be increased public-private sector coordination to increase the availability of the internet to more Americans.  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) must continue to develop a national broadband map that precisely measures where broadband is deployed and where there are gaps in coverage, so that funding can be allocated precisely where it is needed in truly unserved areas across the country.  In December 2020, Congress appropriated $65 million to improve broadband mapping at the FCC.  This money should be spent as quickly and effectively as possible. 

Second, once accurate mapping is achieved, state and local governments should review their franchise agreements, pole attachments, and right-of-way laws to see where they are hindering deployment in unserved and underserved communities.  Federal funding programs for broadband deployment should be reviewed to ensure that the taxpayers’ money is not being spent on deploying broadband where it already exists, and that duplication, waste, or mismanagement in the various funding programs are not occurring.  In particular the underlying funding mechanisms parameters of the Rural Utilities Service broadband loan programs and the universal service fund should be evaluated to ensure they make sense now and in the future for the telecommunications ecosystem, and that taxpayer dollars are not wasted.

Third, there are many technologies that can be used to deploy broadband, including cable, fiber, fixed wireless, mobile broadband, satellite, and TV white space spectrum use.  Limiting broadband definitions to only one type of broadband system does a disservice to ongoing innovation of this sector and prevents existing federal funding from being deployed using all available technologies. 

Finally, Congress – not the FCC – should decide once and for all how the internet service providers that provide this vital communications platform should be regulated.  The constant back and forth on how the internet should be regulated based on who is sitting in the White House must end.  This means that Congress must review the Communications Act of 1934, along with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and update them, along with every other relevant telecommunications law, so they can meet the communications needs and requirements of the nation now and into the future.  The objective should be to have the federal government oversee, but not overwhelm, the telecommunications system.  The light-touch regulatory principles should remain at the forefront of these efforts.

Communications is thankfully a far cry from 25 years ago.  It is unimaginable to envision how this country could have withstood the current pandemic crisis without the ability to work, shop, and most importantly connect to schools remotely using digital platforms that didn’t exist in 1996.  The FCC’s policies over the past four years, particularly compared to the problems that occurred in Europe where the internet is more strictly regulated, must be kept in mind by policy makers as they move forward over the next 25 years.

 

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