Analysis of The Telecommunications Act of 1996

By Fritz Messere, Assoicate Professor of Communication Studies at SUNY Oswego.
Faculty Fellow of the Annenberg Washington Program

General Introduction

note: current as of 3/15/96

The Telecommunications Act of 1996, (Pub. L. No. 104-104, 47 U.S.C. 151 et, seq. (1996)), the first successful attempt to rewrite the sixty-two year old Communications Act of 1934, was passed on February 1, 1996. The Act refocuses federal communications policymaking after years of confused, multi-agency and intergovernmental attempts to regulate and make sense out of a burgeoning telecommunications industry. The bill relies on increased competition for development of new services in broadcasting and cable, telecommunications, information and video services while it reasserts Congress' leadership role as the dominant communications policymaker.

Portions of the Act became effective immediately after President Clinton signed the bill in law on February 8, 1996. Other sections of the Act will be implemented as the Federal Communications Commission promulgates new rules and regulations to meet provisional requirements of the Act. Noting the historic nature of the bill, President Clinton stated that the legislation would "stimulate investment, promote competition, provide open access for all citizens to the Information Superhighway." However, many public interest groups are concerned that the Act undermines public interest values of access.

The Act includes several highly controversial provisions that various interests groups claim restrict speech or violate constitutional protections. One section of the bill prohibits the transmission of indecent and obscene material when the material is likely to be seen or read by a minor, and another provision requires broadcasters to formulate a ratings scheme for programs. After nearly four years of work, the bill's passage was eagerly awaited by government and industry leaders alike. Public interest and various industry groups, upset with provisions that would restrict First Amendment rights of telecommunications users vowed to challenge the constitutionality of those provisions in court. Within hours of the bill's passage, a number of civil liberties groups led by the ACLU sought an injunction against provisions of the Act.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 is a complex reform of American communication policymaking that attempts to provide similar ground rules and a level playing field in virtually all sectors of the communications industries. The Act's provisions fall into five general areas:

  • radio and television broadcasting
  • cable television
  • telephone services
  • Internet and on-line computer services
  • telecommunications equipment manufacturing

    The Act abolishes many of the cross-market barriers that prohibited dominant players from one communications industry, like telephone, from providing services in other industry sectors like cable. New mergers and acquisitions, consolidations and integration of services previously barred under FCC rules, antitrust provisions of federal law, and the Modified Final Judgment proceeding (see AT&T Consent Decree) will be allowed for the first time illustrating the belief by Congress that competition should replace other regulatory schemes as we enter a new century.

    Impact on Radio and Television Broadcasting - (page two)
    Impact on Radio and Television Broadcasting - (page three)
    Internet and On-line Computer Services - (page four)
    Sources and Suggested Reading - (page five)

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    ęby Fritz Messere 1996.