A lot can change in eighteen years, especially when it comes to technology.
The last time the Telecommunications Act was updated, the commercial Internet was in its infancy, Google and Amazon were just starting and their popularity was limited to those “in the know,” Nintendo 64 was the hot gaming console, LCD TV’s were things of the future belonging to the filthy rich or The Jetsons, the average cost of a cell phone was $1,000, text messaging didn’t exist, and social media hadn’t yet been imagined, in fact, Mark Zuckerberg was just twelve years old at the time.
Fast-forward and today we have near ubiquitous broadband access in this country, though home adoption is still woefully lacking among one-third of the nation’s residents, particularly for members of rural, tribal, low-income and underserved minority communities. Innovation abounds at a dizzying pace with new gadgets, applications, video, music, and social media sharing tools coming on the market each day. The name of the game is convergence, consumer choice rules the day, and in this landscape the regulatory structures of the past no longer apply.
In considering ways to update the Communications Act, then, Congress must be mindful of context.
In 1996 the people involved in creating that iteration of the Telecom Act could not predict that in less than 20 years America would have begun the transition to a full-scale digital economy. Likewise legislators today cannot predict what the next 20 years will hold in store. We’re in the midst of the third major economic revolution of our times, and the rate at which we moved between the agricultural and industrial eras proceeded at a snail’s pace compared to what has happened to our society in the Internet Age.
A modern Communications Act, therefore, in order to be successful, must focus on the reality that as technologies evolve the market will continue to converge and the line between infrastructure and content providers, search and operating systems, and device manufactures and app developers will continue to blur. As such, any rules of the road for the technology and telecommunications sectors must be flexible enough to allow for changes. Further, we should no longer treat players in the Internet ecosystem differently because of what we know them for today, because the technology and services they ride upon and provide in 2014 may be very different from what they offer and how they reach consumers in 2034. An effective Communications Act will likely be one that applies technology neutral broad rules of the road that serve as guiding principles for appropriate conduct, all the while bearing in mind the critical need to promote investment, innovation, and consumer protection.
While the future of the Internet ecosystem is entirely too important to gamble on which regulations today will promote growth and economic opportunity tomorrow, any revised Communications Act must speak to the important role the Federal Communications Commission plays in overseeing the Internet. To be clear, the FCC ought not be tasked with creating the market conditions under which the Internet is expected to flourish. Thus far light touch regulations have enabled an explosion of progress and prosperity that few would have deemed possible in 1996. That trend should be allowed to continue. The most important role the FCC can play going forward is to promote the public interest, and it can do that by both policing markets, rather than trying to create them, and by ensuring that broadband is not just deployed but that it is adopted and used on a wide scale.
Even today, the boundless benefits of high-speed Internet access are not leveraged by millions of Americans, and scores of people who are online are focused solely on entertainment and miss the array of opportunities to enhance their educational, economic, and wellness pursuits. While studies show that the costs of connectivity and computing equipment are factors in the lack of broadband adoption, we have come to understand that digital illiteracy and the perceived lack of relevance of broadband to people’s lives are the chief reasons why people do not use this technology to maximize their lives in profound and meaningful ways. If America hopes to remain globally competitive and if we ever intend to decrease economic inequality and social disparity in this country we must make broadband adoption and use non-negotiable. This is the highest purpose to which the FCC can invest its time, energy, and focus, and it is imperative that this scope of engagement be outlined in a new Telecom Act.
We no longer exist in an era where the interests of corporations or consumers are served by classifying the implements of Internet engagement as telecommunications or information services. These days we live in an “and” rather than an “or” regime. The Internet, the great network of networks, would not be possible but for the synergistic interplay between telecommunications and information services. Our legislative and regulatory structures, therefore, should acknowledge this symbiotic relationship between all of the players in the Internet ecosystem – be they Internet service providers, edge players, content providers, or consumers. Superficial labels and demarcations classifying services in a narrow silo serve no one and should be eradicated from any future rewrites of the Telecom Act.
The only thing certain about the future of tech and telecom in this country is that change is inevitable. To foster continued growth, our laws should not try to play catch up with technology – that’s a losing battle. The Internet Age is upon us, and we must invite frameworks that allow investment, innovation and economic opportunity for all to emerge in previously undreamed of ways.