Happy 20th Anniversary, Telecommunications Act

A Day to Recommit to Universal Broadband Access

Celebrating the Telecom Act’s commitment to universal service while recognizing the need to bring broadband to the remaining digital deserts

I love anniversaries. They give us a chance to review where we’ve been – and recommit to our goals. Today is one of those days.

After many, many years of debate about how to best modernize U.S. telecommunications law, on February 8, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 into law at the Library of Congress. The venue was no accident: it was symbolic of the information, knowledge and learning that the Act would help extend throughout the country.

On that day, through a fiber connection, President Clinton and Vice President Gore video-conferenced with a group of kids from Calvin Coolidge High School. When the Vice President asked about how they thought the new law would impact their lives, one student said he hoped the legislation would “make advances in technology readily available to a diverse group of people.”

Twenty years later, some people deride the 1996 Act for not mentioning “the Internet” by name, but let’s not forget how the legislation laid out a new regulatory landscape for the Digital Age. Most importantly, Congress directed the Federal Communications Commission to preserve and advance the core American value that everyone must have access to “advanced communications services”—what you and I now call broadband—at affordable prices. The bipartisan Act enshrined “universal service,” even while relying more on competition in the telecommunications marketplace.

At the heart of the Telecommunications Act is the belief that media and telecommunications can improve the quality of life for all. That’s a core tenant of Benton’s mission, too, which is why we’re celebrating the commitment the nation made 20 years ago today.

Over the last two decades, broadband has become, unquestionably, essential to education, public health, and public safety. And we know that broadband also has an important economic impact – creating efficiencies, improving productivity, and accelerating innovation.

But if we want every American to be able to take full advantage of the vast opportunities that broadband can deliver, then we need to focus on connecting the critical gaps in our digital infrastructure.

There are a number of places where we could bring broadband that could have great public benefit. Think public transportation, public housing, public lands and parks, public school buses, and public buildings. Extending broadband’s reach to many of these places could be like bringing water to a digital desert.

What better way to address inequity in the U.S. than by making sure these deserts and every community, every school library and clinic; and every household have access to affordable broadband? Broadband networks provide more efficient and less expensive ways to deliver essential public services such as health care, education, public safety and emergency services. Let’s transform our digital deserts into oases for digital opportunity.

The Benton Foundation commends the Federal Communications Commission for its ongoing work to implement the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and ensure all Americans are connected to critical telecommunications networks. The FCC has worked and is working tirelessly to update traditional universal service programs so that they meet the demands of the Digital Age.

  • The Connect America Fund and the Mobility Fund are helping to reduce the substantial costs to deploy and operate fixed and wireless broadband networks in rural areas.
  • The reform and modernization of the E-rate program is helping to make high-capacity broadband more affordable for schools and libraries around the country, improving education and lifelong learning.
  • The FCC is now considering how to modernize its Lifeline program to address broadband affordability which we know is a major barrier to adoption for low-income households which, in turn, impedes deployment, too.
  • As a member of the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition, we ask that the FCC swiftly consider a proceeding to update the Telecommunications and Healthcare Connect Fund, too, so it effectively brings broadband to rural health care facilities.

So happy anniversary, Telecommunications Act of 1996. Your purpose to encourage the rapid deployment of new telecommunications technologies is as important today as ever. Born before the first NetDay and at a time when 28 percent of public libraries provided public Internet access, you’ve connected nearly every school and library to the Internet. Looking back, you were all about the Internet – just flexible enough to be as relevant in the age of fiber and smartphones as the age of dial-up.

But, 20 years later, our primary challenge is still to make the rapid advances in telecommunications readily available to a diverse group of people. We should celebrate how far we’ve come, but we need to keep focused on connecting the last of the digital deserts that exist in this country – so we can bring the richness of the Internet to all our nation’s diverse groups of people, who will then enrich the network even further.

Adrianne B. Furniss is the Executive Director of the Benton Foundation
Please also see Bringing Broadband to Digital Deserts by Benton’s Director of Policy Amina Fazlullah.

By Adrianne B. Furniss.