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Guest Editorial

Time to bring our telecommunications laws up to speed

Are you surprised to learn that the U.S. has the world's oldest telecommunications laws? American laws governing telecommunications, broadcast and radio are unique in the world and a relic of the First World War. They don't apply to the way data, voice and music is distributed today. The word "Internet" doesn't appear anywhere in the Telecommunication Act of 1996.

What's holding us back? When the courts broke up the government-sponsored monopoly carrier AT&T, it was divided into seven (now four) regional giants. For 20 years, these regional giants have protected their monopoly revenues from local phone service, while lobbying Congress and state legislatures to prevent competitors from challenging them in long distance, data and voice services. For the most part, they have been successful. The US now has not only the oldest laws, but also one of the oldest, outdated and increasingly obsolete telecommunications networks.

Remember trying to call Europe or Mexico in the 50's or 60's? Calls sounded like a scratchy recording, and you really could tell you were calling "overseas."

Not any more. Old Europe and Ancient Mexico completely rebuilt their networks decades ago. They are a decade ahead of us in their wireless phone networks. To add insult, their residents (and businesses) pay about half of what we do, and they get more bells and whistles to boot.

The U.S. has fallen from first in the world in high-speed data and Internet use to 16th place. This is a race we really don't want to lose. As industrial nations like the U.S. move toward an information or knowledge-based economy, the telecommunications sector becomes increasingly important. The nations we compete against, in Europe, Asia and North America are not standing still and waiting for us to catch up. Connectivity per person in Canada is twice the rate in the U.S.

In Washington DC, events pushed reform of U.S. laws to the front burner. Digital convergence, meaning the rapid convergence of all types of media and telecommunications to digital bits, has brought the telecoms to a crisis. Telephone calls can now be made over the Internet that sound as good as anything telephone companies offer. Television quality video can be received over an Internet connection, and soon over telephones wires. The Web can be surfed with anything from a mobile phone, to a TV, to the screen on the refrigerator.

Right now, the regional telecom giants, cable companies and multinational entertainment companies are meeting behind closed doors in Washington, seeking to convince Congress to enact laws even more favorable for themselves, locking up our news and cultural information, watering down the laws requiring diversity and public interest obligations, and ignoring the public drumbeat for a modern world-class information technology infrastructure.

Instead, our elected officials at every level and the FCC must give reform their foremost attention. We must have a series of hearings around the country, from Hawaii to Maine and in every state in-between, listening to the opinions of the country's best minds in academia, law, the tech sector and throughout civil society.

Our nation's future, and the inheritance that we pass down to future generations, deserve the fullest public participation. This country was once a leader in the area of information technology and telecommunications. If we are to regain competitiveness and international stature, real reforms are needed. We deserve nothing but the best.

Michael Weisman is an attorney and media policy advocate for the American Forum, a non-profit, non-partisan, educational organization.

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