Today is the 17th Anniversary of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 – a law that freed the marketplace from 19th century-era, monopoly regulation, bringing about, with the evolution of technology, the vibrant Internet.
I recently found a box for the cell phone I used at the time the ’96 Act was being written (pictured with my current smartphone nearby). What a hoot. “Deluxe Cellular Telephone,” with – get these features – automatic redial, call timers, built-in battery charger, electronic lock, signal strength and battery meters, data ready, and two telephone number capability.
Impressive, huh? (Back then, I guess)
My smartphone – pictured next to it – well, I can’t even tell you all the things it can and will do.
It took 60 years to get to modernizing the Communications Act of 1934 with the ’96 Act. Technology had undermined the ’34 law’s regulatory assumptions, pressing it to the limit and thereby thwarting innovation. Technology is having the same effect to our 17-year-old teenager, too.
There are calls from some tech Eeyores in Washington to “update” the ’96 Act by stepping back into our monopoly-oriented past, and re-using 19th century-era regulation to bring about more “competition.”
Let’s not do that.
The picture at right shows life before deregulation, and life after. The old phone, with its “deluxe” features, was a phone. Clean and easy to regulate. In a silo.
The iPhone is just five years old. In its short life it has inarguably changed the world’s communications landscape. Its birth was not by accident: it likely would not have been brought to market under the 1934 Act. It would have straddled too many regulatory silos – i.e., it’s a phone, a TV, a radio, an information device, a mail courier, a computer, etc. – to be easily offered to consumers without being hamstrung by regulations.
Do we want legislators and regulators to use the same ’34 model for an update – one based on strict technological silos and profit-confiscating policies?
Let’s hope they have enough smarts to realize that’s a bad idea. We want more than just “deluxe” features in our communications technology; any update to the ’96 Act should bust down silos rather than re-erect them.