Cause for celebration on the 20th anniversary of the Telecom Act?

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Telecommunications Act of 1996.  Celebrations have been sighted in and around Washington, D.C.[1]

Helpful clarification of the substance of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was provided by Patricia Aufderheide in 1999.[2]  Ostensibly passed to support and strengthen market forces in networking, and signed into law at the height of the competition fever that had gripped the citadels of American power, the legislation was part of a more encompassing structural transition.  The early 1990s, when about ten giant local- and long distance carriers ruled U.S. networking, turned out to be the last gasp of a tightly bounded industrial giantism.  This circumscribed mode of ownership and control was, however, now rapidly supplanted. A much wider range of participants together constituted the giantism that followed:  proprietary intranets, operated by big companies based in every economic sector; content delivery networks, operated by the likes of Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft; and a scattering of huge backbone Internet providers.  One might say that capitalism in communications had been opened to capital at large.
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There is little cause for celebration about this, as a quick review of the events occurring this week makes plain. Lawyers, engineers, executives and policy wonks:  these were the chief participants. Ordinary folk are as removed from these lackluster events as they were from the legislation itself.  On the dreary occasion of Congress’s vote on Public Law 104-104, if memory serves, the only praiseworthy statement came from Congressman John Conyers, a trenchant opponent.  Notable was the exceptionally strong bipartisan backing for the measure; and this was attributable to the extensive support that it gained from corporate America.  Less interesting was the parade of self-congratulatory speeches that ensued, in which legislators, lobbyists, and academic parrots declaimed on the virtues of competition.  Gas-baggery ruled.

Today’s party-ers are cast from the same mold.  They don’t seem to include many working people, let alone any trade unionists.  That’s not accidental:  these are the people whose interests were further marginalized by the Telecom Act of 1996. However, the revolving door between industry and government is spinning as fast as ever, as regulators and lobbyists exchange places.  The Center for Responsive Politics lists literally dozens of individuals who have moved between the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and industry.[3

It wasn’t always this way.  During the depressed 1930s, early New Deal legislation created the FCC.  The new agency’s first order of business – Docket Number 1, as it were – was to conduct a top-to-bottom telephone inquiry.  With Congress’s approval and funding, the agency sent as many as 250 economists, engineers, accountants and lawyers to comb through the files of AT&T – then the largest company in the world, and the core of the U.S. telecommunications industry.  By 1938, when the FCC’s highly critical proposed report of its investigation was published, pressure was also growing on AT&T to recognize the rights and needs of the hundreds of thousands of workers who produced telecommunications services.  During the thirty years that followed, the U.S. telecommunications industry was transformed from one of the chief strongholds of the open shop and of company-dominated “employee representation plans” into one of the nation’s most thoroughly unionized industries, boasting high wages and excellent fringe benefits.  Not coincidentally, an inclusive telecommunications service was built, for the first time throwing open access to household residents throughout the country.

The industry continued to suffer from serious problems but, before additional reforms could be made, time ran out.  A counter-offensive, under the code names of  “competition” and “deregulation” put paid to the New Deal settlement in telecommunications.  In the perspective of labor and employment relations, “competition” actually signified a rapid expansion of outsourcing to nonunion labor and continual attacks on unionized telecommunications.  The 1996 Act merely offered affirmation for this more extended process.

During the 1930s, a small but scrappy union had had the audacity to propose that the FCC should prioritize the needs and demands of telecommunications workers throughout its rulemaking.  Indeed, it proposed that there should be a labor representative on the FCC itself.[4]

Now that might be something worth celebrating.



[1] “Broadband Coalition Says “Happy Birthday” to 1996 Telecom Act in New Video,” Telecom Reseller, February 8, 2016 ; David McCabe, “Bill Clinton’s telecom law: Twenty years later,” Hill, February 7, 2016 ; John Eggerton, “The Telecom Act at 20,” Multichannel News, February 5, 2016.

[2] Patricia Aufderheide Communications Policy and the Public Interest: The Telecommunications Act of 1996 (New York: Guilford Press, 1999).

[3] Center for Responsive Politics, “Revolving Door Search Results Agency Search: Federal Communications Commission,”; Jon Brodkin, “FCC’s Revolving Door: Former Chairman Leads Charge Against Title II,ArsTechnica April 14, 2015.

[4] Dan Schiller, book manuscript in preparation.

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