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TechTank

Commemorating the 1934 Communications Act

The information and communications technology sector has gone through dramatic changes over the past century. In 1934 when Congress passed the Communications Act, it was considered a minor piece of legislation bundled with the New Deal. The dominant technology was AM radio. Today’s communications sector is a critical part of the economy that accounts for a large part of our economy in terms of GDP.

Last month, experts in the field of communications—Stuart N. Brotman, Robert E. Litan, Larry Irving, and Robert M. McDowell—convened at Brookings to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Communications Act of 1934. The panelists discussed the history, implementation, and potential changes to law in the 21st Century.

The panelists described the following difficulties with rewriting the Communications Act and some necessary updates to antiquated communication policies:

Challenges in Crafting Communications Policies

  • Predicting the Future- It is difficult if not impossible for bureaucrats to predict the future. In 1934, legislators were only dealing with radio spectrum. There were no televisions, cellphones, voice over Internet protocol, apps, etc. In 1996, when Congress last reauthorized the law, long distance telephone was considered the most important issue and the word “Internet” received only a single mention.
  • Immature Technologies- Some believe the federal government should require the use of technologies like spectrum sharing to free up more bandwidth. However, spectrum sharing and other similar technologies currently work better in theory than in reality. Requiring their use at this time could have unanticipated results.
  • Resisting the Desire for Action- Some believe the federal government should require the use of technologies like spectrum sharing to free up more bandwidth. However, spectrum sharing and other similar technologies currently work better in theory than in reality. Requiring their use at this time could have unanticipated results.

Policies to Fix the Communications Act

  • Policy Silos- As technology developed over time, the FCC grew and added new experts to regulate different technologies. These policy silos were useful because in the past different technologies required different regulatory regimes. But today it’s difficult to tell the difference between telecoms, Internet service providers, and content creators. It’s best for the FCC to develop a single approach for regulating these companies.
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  • Universal Service- In the 1940’s and 1950’s the FCC worked diligently to make sure that every American had access to a phone. Today policymakers need to rethink the concept of universal service. It is critical to provide benefits of Internet to traditionally disenfranchised communities like Native Americans and impoverished people.
  • Spectrum Inventory- Many suspect that broad swathes of bandwidth are underused, but no one knows for sure. The government should conduct a spectrum inventory to determine who is using spectrum, when they use it, and why they use it. This is a critical first step to using spectrum more efficiently.
  • Principle of Equality- The FCC should develop policies that promote a competitive market place. All laws should treat incumbent firms and new entrants the same.

Although the Communications Act of 1934 was once an afterthought for lawmakers, today communication technology is key to America’s future economic growth. The Internet has transformed nearly every aspect of commerce since the law was last updated in 1996. Congress must make further changes to adapt to the new Internet based economy.

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