Happy Birthday Telecom Act!

The Telecom Act unleashed astonishing innovation

By Diane Smith

Twenty years ago, on Feb. 8, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was signed into law. It was the first major revision of the Communications Act in over 60 years. I was a telecom executive at the time and for years after I could pretty much quote from every section of the new law. By heart. I can’t quote it verbatim anymore, but watching up close the intensely substantive, bipartisan efforts of Congress to craft this vitally important piece of legislation is an experience that has stayed with me ever since.

The Telecom Act of 1996 was only 128 pages long (by contrast the Affordable Care Act came in at 974 pages). Chock full of game-changing policy, it was elegant, understandable, and prescient in many ways. The word “internet” was used only 11 times. Six of the 11 internet mentions are in the section titled “…Screening of Offensive Material,” so it’s pretty clear that, even in 1996, lawmakers were concerned about bad actors on the internet!

According to a recent Facebook post from one of the whip-smart Congressional staffers who worked on the bill, long-distance calls cost 31 cents per minute at the time the Act was passed. For those of you who might not recall, “long distance” referred to the really expensive landline phone calls made to pretty much anyone who lived farther away than down the street. The elimination of long distance charges, in my opinion, ranks as one of the most positive changes for rural and small town America since the invention of the telephone.

Along with lots of other lawyers, technologists, economists, and advocates, I sat through hours of deliberations regarding the future of telecom and technology. Not once though do I recall anyone referencing anything remotely resembling smartphones, iPads, or the “cloud.” For that matter, the notion of any type of social media as we know it today was simply beyond imagination just two decades ago.

The Telecom Act unleashed astonishing innovation. The internet now accounts for 6 percent of the U.S. economy. Mobile phone penetration is an astonishing 110 percent and payphones have become extinct. One hundred eighty-four million Americans own smartphones that connect us to a whole new array of services, including video and broadband. In 1996, 28 percent of libraries offered internet access. Today virtually all of our nation’s libraries offer internet access. A future we had barely imagined roared to life after adoption of the Act and it’s changed our daily lives forever.

Watching up close this evolution affected me deeply; it made me profoundly aware of how little we know about the future and how crucial it is to leave plenty of room for imagination. It never occurred to me at the time that, as a result of changes fostered by the Telecom Act of 1996, I might one day be able live and work in a small Montana town, become a technology entrepreneur, and stay connected to so many of my colleagues who helped make the Act a reality. I still find it inspiring and humbling to recall how possibilities we couldn’t even imagine then so easily exceeded what we thought we knew. Happy 20th birthday to the Telecom Act of 1996, may our next 20 years be just as fruitful.

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