This Industry Viewpoint was authored by Max Silber, Vice President of Mobility at MetTel
As we celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the 1996 Telecommunications Act last week, the main discussions centered on what it got right and what it got wrong. There’s no denying the impact the act had on the telecommunications industry as a whole, from centralizing the landscape to enabling the innovations we’re seeing today, the Act operated as a catalyst to create the way we connect.
While it’s easy to look back and provide comments in hindsight on the Act, the harder job is to look forward and provide recommendations on what should be included in the next Telecommunications Act. Here are three updates that need to be considered, taking into consideration the technological advances and overall changes the industry has seen in the past twenty years.
Privacy and security come first.
We live in a world of constant fear about our security – from credit cards to health care records, we have to live with the reality that information that should be kept private can be exposed. The 1996 Telecommunications Act said nothing about privacy, which is understandable as at that time the Internet was unchartered territory. Now, as digital monitoring continues to grow (including advertising targeting, bulk surveillance, encryption, etc.) it’s time to set boundaries now before it becomes too late.
These are also key considerations as the hype around the Internet of Things (IoT) and connected devices remains at the forefront of the conversation. Not only do these devices need to be secure from a manufacturer’s perspective, but the actual infrastructure of the services (such as the WiFi or fiberoptic cable the device is connected to) has to keep the data running through it away from hackers.
Time-limited patents for increased knowledge sharing.
While the 1996 Telecommunications Act played a key role in deregulating the telecommunications industry, it also caused large-scale mergers that created the key players we know in the industry today. We see it all the time – the “Big 4” carriers battle over phone, text and data options, their level of network infrastructure and overall coverage capabilities. But to keep the battle beneficial for end users, it’s important that no one company can claim a monopoly over a specific advantage.
For example, should a carrier discover a new way to transmit data that blows existing options out of the water (such as Gigabit internet versus 4G or 5G connections), it makes sense to allow that carrier to capitalize on their revelation. However, any patents created for technological advancements that have the opportunity to change the telecommunications industry should have time limitations. This ensures that competition maintains a level playing field, eliminating the chance of monopolies and benefiting the end user (and not just the carrier with the discovery).
Set a timeline for universal access.
A recent FCC report notes that ten percent of all Americans (34 million people) lack access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service, with almost 70% of those Americans located in rural areas. Section 706 of the 1996 Act requires the FCC to report if advanced telecommunications capability “is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion,” and to take “immediate action” if it is not. While the FCC states that “significant progress in broadband deployment has been made,” it also notes that “the Commission finds that these advances are not enough to ensure that advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a timely way.” This capability is described as one that allows users to “originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video” services – the lack of which clearly has an effect on everything from education to work capabilities.
The next telecommunications act needs to address this directly. The time has come to set a deadline to providing legitimate access to 100% of people on American soil. With what we’ve learned over the past twenty years from the 1996 Act, and with the cumulative efforts of both the government, FCC and telecommunications carriers, this should be completed by 2022.
There’s no question that an act created twenty years ago will require a major update, especially at the rate that technology has advanced during that time period. While the 1996 Telecommunications Act set the tone for the industry and brought significant and imperative changes, the next act must reflect the state of the telecommunications industry in 2016 and include the three updates listed above.