Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (‘96 Act), bipartisan legislation signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The ‘96 Act represented the first significant overhaul of our nation’s telecommunications law in over six decades.
The ‘96 Act sought to foster greater competition within and between various sectors in the communications industry. As founding director of the White House Office of Telecommunications Policy Clay T. Whitehead stated, the goal of the ’96 Act was to “set a framework based on those enduring principles of competition and open entry, allow a little time for the industry to get used to the ideas, and get out of the way.”
Through the ‘96 Act, Congress sought to accelerate competition as a means to enhance innovation and spur the deployment of facilities-based competitive communications networks. At the time, the vision of the ’96 Act was to help speed the creation of an ‘Information Superhighway.’ Eventually, that effort would help nurture the development and increased adoption of a nascent technology – the internet and world-wide web.
Eliminating prohibitions on market entry and competition for voice and video services led to greater private investment and network upgrades by telephone, cable companies and new entrants. This accelerated network buildout would ultimately create new broadband service offerings for the nation’s consumers. In fact, as the United States Telecom Association noted, “from 1996 through 2019, the broadband industry  … made capital investments totaling more than $1.78 trillion.”
These investments have helped create our nation’s modern broadband infrastructure, drive technological innovation in the industry, expand economic growth, and connect millions of previously unserved Americans – particularly those in rural communities.
And that progress continues today. As the FCC recently noted, “more than three-quarters of those Americans in areas newly served in 2019—nearly 3.7 million—live in rural areas, bringing the number of rural Americans in areas served by at least 25/3 Mbps broadband service to nearly 83 percent, up 15 points since 2016.”
The ‘96 Act was the keystone that spurred the internet’s expansion and laid the path for greater broadband access for millions of new Americans, but much more work remains to bridge the digital divide and close the broadband gaps that continue to exist in our country. The telecommunications landscape no longer looks anything like it did in 1996, and policymakers will need to reexamine the nation’s regulatory models to address modern barriers and build on our progress.
That’s why 25 years later, we honor the legacy of the ‘96 Act by continuing to carry out its vision of a fully connected America. Charter will continue to expand connectivity and bring more people online, including through our recently-announced initiative to connect an estimated one million unserved homes and businesses and by removing barriers that stand in the way of expansion, such as timely access to utility poles. We will continue efforts to improve broadband adoption and partner with policy makers and other stakeholders to help bring the benefits of broadband and access to the internet ecosystem to every American.
The last quarter century marked a new chapter for America’s telecommunications landscape – one transformed by the internet and the digital economy, which now influences how we live, work, and connect. As we look to the next 25 years, the opportunities are no less profound, but harnessing those opportunities will require a renewed focus on ensuring every American family, business, and anchor institution has access to the online infrastructure of the 21st century.