Telecom Act Celebrates 20 Years

By Bruce Christian

This year is the 20th anniversary of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and the competitive telecommunications industry has come a long way in the past two decades. That bill marked the first major revision to the original Communications Act, which was passed back in the 1930s.

INCOMPAS CEO Chip Pickering, who served as a staff member on the Senate Commerce Committee, where he helped shape the Telecommunications Act of 1996, speaks with some authority regarding the progress that has made. He said the major accomplishments of the measure have included:

  • Opening the local markets for competition
  • Interconnection of incumbent and competitive networks
  • Encouragement of broadband network deployment

Pickering said passage of the Act is “a clear demonstration of how a bipartisan effort can lead to good policy making that benefits the American people. We need to get back to that as a nation – both parties working together to accomplish good.”

Still, some provisions of the Act have not worked out as well as those who crafted it would have hoped.

“There are particular sections that have not been fulfilled,” Pickering said, specifically citing Section 629 – the availability of competitive set-top boxes is one example.

“As a result, consumers have suffered,” he said. “The cost of renting a set top box has increased 185 percent since 1994. By contrast, the price for televisions and computers has dropped by 90 percent.”

This is an area the Federal Communications Commission is addressing, however, and Pickering said INCOMPAS supports the effort.

“The FCC’s plan is simple: Allow consumers to purchase their own video device from numerous retail outlets at costs lower than the monopoly rental rate – which costs families $231 per household on average annually,” Pickering explained.

“Consumers also would have easier access to over-the-top and streaming programming currently blocked by most cable set top boxes,” he continued. “That means consumers who want to binge watch their favorite streaming shows would no longer need to switch between program guides, remote controls or devices.”

The FCC’s proposal would give consumers multiple opportunities to discover new content from independent programmers that have been unable to get carriage on pay-TV channel line-ups.

“Independent programmers could offer this content directly to consumers,” Pickering explained. “The new rules would allow consumers more access to over-the-top programming than with traditional cable services, and they would enjoy better viewing experiences.”