The debate over net neutrality and the legal cage match between Apple and Samsung have transfixed many in Silicon Valley, but there are other pressing technology issues with profound implications that warrant our attention and the consideration.
Most prominent of those is reforming the Communications Act -- the monumental law that governs almost all aspects of American communications services and technology. Enacted eight decades ago, when the rotary telephone was considered a revolutionary consumer electronic, outdated remnants of the original Communications Act of 1934 are still in place today. Prominent California lawmakers like Rep. Anna Eshoo, a leader on technology issues, must make updating the Communications Act a priority to ensure that the regulatory framework does not hinder America's dominance as a global technology leader.
The act was last updated by Congress in 1996. Considering the explosion of technological innovation we have seen in those 18 years.
As a young man with a strong interest in communications policy, I worked at the FCC in the office of then-Commissioner Susan Ness. This was the period in which the act was passed and implemented.
While the reforms we helped enshrine in the act where essential, they were enacted before the widespread deployment of high-speed broadband networks, before consumers overwhelmingly adopted wireless phones and mobile applications, and at a time when the Internet was in its infancy.
To get a sense of how dated the Act is, consider that it mentions "payphones" more than it mentions the "Internet." Moreover, the Act makes no mention of wireless carriers, whereas today nearly 40 percent of American households are served exclusively by wireless providers.
Clearly, the technological landscape in the U.S. has been profoundly transformed. Traditional telecommunications carriers, cable companies, fiber-optic providers, satellite services, voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) providers, and wireless carriers all aggressively compete to provide consumers connectivity and Internet-based services.
As a result, consumers have more choices today, and that is fueling greater innovation in Internet-based services.
By 1996, the original rules of the Communications Act of 1934 were ill-suited to apply to the newer technologies of the 1990s, so they were revised. In this new century, the development and deployment of advanced communications technologies has advanced so dramatically that in many ways the 1996 Act is as outdated now as the original act was then.
Unfortunately, the 1996 Act imposes outdated, technology-specific regulatory demands on services that are now also offered through newer technologies. There is growing concern that these obsolete regulations could jeopardize the progress we have seen in new technologies by hindering innovation and collaboration between various communication platforms. To meet the dynamism of today's ever-evolving communications ecosystem, the act should be revised again.
Fortunately, a growing bipartisan group of lawmakers agree that these old regulations now pose a burden on the technological landscape today. To avoid that, we must revise them to make them more technology neutral. In fact, the Energy & Commerce Subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives has begun requesting input on this issue.
While reforming the Telecommunications Act will undoubtedly be a multiyear effort, policymakers should make this a top legislative priority. We must not let the challenge of doing so dissuade us from taking meaningful action toward shared objectives now.
On matters of communications policy, lawmakers have historically come to reasonable compromise, and put the nation's interests before party. The 1996 Act is a case in point.
Legislators from both parties came together to update the laws for a modern era. Their efforts demonstrated America's commitment to ensuring all citizens benefited from the emerging technologies of that era. Now is the time to renew that mission.
Kevin Terpstra worked at the FCC in 1995-1996 and was a former special adviser for information technology in the California governor's office.