Academic journal article Federal Communications Law Journal

Answering Four Questions on the Anniversary of the Telecommunications Act of 1996

Academic journal article Federal Communications Law Journal

Answering Four Questions on the Anniversary of the Telecommunications Act of 1996

Article excerpt

Most legislation is doomed to obscurity, and, aside from the Fourth of July, it is unusual for Americans celebrate the anniversary of a government document. But the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (1) is not just any law, and its twentieth anniversary on February 8, 2016 will be noted. It represents a rare attempt by Congress to overhaul an agency. It was an uncommon product of bipartisanship from a cutthroat partisan era. And its legacy is deeply contentious. Those who celebrate the Act claim that it brought competition and economic growth to the communications sector. Those who revile it blame it for all that ails the industry. Many have called for its rewriting, but little consensus exists as to what a new federal communications law should look like.

While countless books and articles have analyzed and chronicled the Act, (2) its twentieth anniversary offers an opportunity to reflect on its legacy and future. This Comment considers this controversial piece of legislation by exploring the following four questions:

(1) What were the political conditions that enabled the passage of the Act?

(2) To what extent was the implementation of the Act faithful to its intent?

(3) How did the communications sector fare in response to the Act?

(4) Is the Act due to be re-written?

I. What were the political conditions that enabled the PASSAGE OF THE ACT?

The successful passage of a law often involves grandiose celebrations. The president signs a bill into law in a ceremony. (3) Major laws have key congressional supporters as witnesses to the signing ceremony, usually held at the White House. (4) Smiles and photographers abound. Documents and pens are memorialized. (5) The president and Congressional leaders say a few words about the lasting importance of the new law. (6) Journalists dutifully report the event. (7) And then, slowly over the years, amnesia sets in. Few remember; fewer remember accurately; and even fewer care.

Of course, the Congressmen, Senators, and staff will long cherish the mementos of the occasion. In many offices in Washington, one finds elegantly framed copies of signed bills and even a memorialized pen. (8) These are the relics of the bill signing. They remain alive and animated for a year or two. By five years, the signatories have likely left office. By ten years, few remember what the purpose of the law. After twenty years, the relics appear more as prehistoric fossils unearthed in some obscure place many years ago.

If it were an ordinary law, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 would have been long forgotten. But it was born on a grander scale than most. The conditions that facilitated its passage were fortuitous and dramatic. The bill-signing was remarkable in its pompousness. (9) And the Act's influence has pervaded the communications sector. But whether its passage is remembered accurately is a separate question.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was not the product of just the 104th Congress, but of at least the prior ten Congresses. Since the 1970's, Members of Congress recognized that the Communications Act of 1934 no longer reflected the technological landscape of the communications sector and thus attempted to reform federal communications law. (10) They primarily sought to overhaul the AT&T monopoly, but also saw the need for greater flexibility in market entry and ownership rules. (11) Legislators introduced bills and held hearings, but plans for comprehensive review were passed from Congress to Congress. (12)

By the 1990's, the longing for deregulation reached a boiling point. AT&T's divested companies hoped to escape Judge Harold Greene's rigid control in implementing the consent decree. (13) Incumbent telephone companies sought to enter new lines of business. (14) Long-distance companies such as AT&T and MCI wished to enter local telephone markets, and divested Bell companies wanted to enter the long-distance market. …

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