Its Time to Kill the Telecom Act of 1996

By Rob Fixmer  |  Posted 2002-04-08 Print this article Print

The Internet is forcing us to redefine concepts like network, infrastructure, services, applications, even competition. It's time Congress pulled the plug on the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Youd have a hard time finding a bigger jumble of flawed logic than the Federal Communications Commissions recent attempts to even the playing field for the competition between telephone and cable companies over residential broadband.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell is in the unenviable position of having to find a rational way to enforce the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the well-meaning but mistaken law that tried to create telecommunications competition by decree.

Thats a bad idea under the best of circumstances, but the timing of the act could not have been worse. It was born at the dawn of widespread use of the Internet, whose protocols and architecture were changing the basic definitions of telecommunications before the ink had dried on President Clintons signature. Within months of the laws enactment, it was outdated.

In separate actions recently, the FCC proposed redefining DSL and cable Internet access as "information services." This would relax requirements that phone companies open their networks to DSL competitors and at the same time bring cable companies, whose Internet services are now largely unregulated, under the purview of the 1996 act. The goal is to get both industries, for the first time, to play by the same rules.

However, the kinds of services provided are beside the point. In effect, the FCC is saying that if I deliver voice calls over circuit-switched networks, Im a telephone company. But if I deliver voice over IP, Im an information service.

Take this logic to the next step. If a company delivers entertainment programming over cable television lines, local governments are authorized to regulate it as a cable company. But if it streams that same programming over the same lines using IP, under the FCCs reasoning, its now an information service provider.

The Internet is forcing us to redefine concepts like network, infrastructure, services, applications, even competition. Its time Congress pulled the plug on the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Competition is growing despite the law, not because of it, and the FCC can only clothe the emperor in rationalizations for so long.

You cant possibly disagree with me. Or can you? Let me know at


Rob joined Interactive Week from The New York Times, where he was the paper's technology news editor. Rob also was the founding editor of CyberTimes, The New York Times' technology news site on the Web. Under his guidance, the section grew from a one-man operation to an award-winning, full-time venture.

His earlier New York Times assignments were as national weekend editor, national backfield editor and national desk copy editor. Before joining The New York Times in 1992, Rob held key editorial positions at the Dallas Times Herald and The Madison (Wisc.) Capital Times.

A highly regarded technology journalist, he recently was appointed to the University of Wisconsin School of Journalism's board of visitors. Rob lectures yearly on new media at Columbia University's School of Journalism, and has made presentations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab and Princeton University's New Technologies Symposium.

In addition to overseeing all of Interactive Week's print and online coverage of interactive business and technology, his responsibilities include development of new sections and design elements to ensure that Interactive Week's coverage and presentation are at the forefront of a fast-paced and fast-changing industry.


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