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Eva M. Clayton Headshot

It's Time for an Upgrade: 18 Years Is Just Too Long

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It is unquestionable that the widespread use of the Internet has benefited our economy, society and overall quality of life -- as resulted we are more connected than ever before. However while new technologies are created and brought to market every day, the laws governing our country's communications sector are way behind the times.

The original Communications Act was enacted in 1934 and subsequently revised in 1996 in which the word "Internet" only appeared 11 times while "payphone" garnered 18 references. Our policies are still being led by those outdated laws, even though they do not reflect the competitive nature or dynamism of today's digital world. Trying to govern modern communications networks with outdated laws is not only hurting innovation and discouraging investment, but it is also putting economic growth, Internet-based health care and education resources -- and "the next big thing" that will make wireless technology and the Internet an even more essential factor in daily life -- at risk.

The effect of a modernized Communications Act will certainly go far beyond what many people associate with the communications sector; it will also help bridge the ongoing digital divide that adversely impacts many Americans. The digital divide is the gap between those individuals and communities that have direct access to the Internet -- and all of its benefits -- and those that do not. The divide exists among several factions, from racial disparities and household income to geographic location, age and level of education. While much progress has been made throughout the last decade to close the divide, there is still work to be done.

A 2013 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found 74 percent of whites used the Internet at home versus 64 percent of African-Americans and 53 percent of Latinos. These inequalities are currently hurting those on the lesser side of the divide, but they have the potential to become even more of a disadvantage as the Internet becomes more central to our everyday lives. While many factors contribute to the digital divide, the top reason that non adopters cite is they don't see the relevance or have a need for broadband. Eliminating this adoption gap by enhancing the broadband value proposition must be a goal of a modern Communications Act -- a goal that can be achieved with a keen focus on expanding the role of broadband in the delivery of social services.

Consider a few examples: Through distance learning, the Internet increases access to education. Through health IT, the Internet increases access to doctors and medical information. And, as many employers now require online job applications, the Internet gives people the ability to search and apply for jobs with the click of a button.

As a former member of Congress, I am acutely aware of the partisan quarreling that often prevents legislation from moving forward in a timely manner. Fortunately in this situation, that is not the case.

History has shown that both parties understand the importance of communications policy and have therefore worked well together to make necessary changes -- as evidenced when updating the Communications Act in 1996. More recently, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have acknowledged the problem and that the Act needs to be modernized, and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) are taking the lead in the Congressional effort to review and reform it. The Dean of the House of Representatives, Rep. John Dingell, also acknowledges the need for updating and modifying the Act where it makes sense.

In his State of the Union address in 2011, President Obama remarked, "Thirty years ago, we couldn't know that something called the Internet would lead to an economic revolution." A few weeks later when he announced the National Wireless Initiative he said, "For our families and our businesses, high-speed wireless service, that's the next train station; it's the next off-ramp. It's how we'll spark new innovation, new investment, new jobs." The president was right then and is still right today, but in order to fully realize this vision, communications policy has to catch up to the times. A new communications regulatory structure that is flexible enough to allow innovation to thrive and enable U.S. tech leadership into the 21st Century will drive the innovations and applications that will enhance the broadband value proposition in minority communities and shrink the adoption gap to close the digital divide.

I applaud the Committee's leadership for taking on this effort and urge policymakers to come together and craft a new future-looking Act that will benefit all Americans.