Telecommunications Act of 1996

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 is a federal law of the United States of America that governs the communications industries of telephone, internet, radio, television, and cable. (Econmides 1988)

History of the Act
Before the Telecommunications Act of 1996, there was a law known as the 1934 Communications Act, which governed telephone and television. (Econmides 1988) Starting in 1984 after the large national telephone company AT&T was broken up by the government into smaller regional companies, Congress attempted to create rules and regulations for all the new technology which existed. They could not reach agreement for 12 years, after which they passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. (Econmides 1988)

Purpose of the Act
Congress intended to reduce regulations on the telecommunications industry, so that companies could compete for customers. (Campbell, Martin & Fabos, 2017) The Act allowed any company to enter any, or all, of the different types of telecommunications businesses. (Federal Communication Commission 2014) By allowing companies to operate in more than one field of telecommunications, such as telephone providers also selling television and internet services, it gave way to greater competition. Generally, competition lowers prices for consumers because they would naturally choose the company that provides the best service to them at the lowest price. Also, the Act was meant to create a “universal service” which is a basic bundle of telecommunications services that should be available to all consumers at a reasonable cost. (Sterling 1996)

Effect of the Act
The Act has had mixed results. In some ways it has been a success and in others it has not lived up to expectations. (Campbell et al., 2017) Of course, there has been a huge expansion in systems and technology for cable, telephone, internet, and television since 1996. Much of the copper wires used to transmit data have been replaced by fiber optic wires that allow faster transmission of, and a higher volume of, data. (Campbell et al., 2017) However, prices for these services have not decreased much. It turns out that there is still not much competition in cable; about 90% of communities have just one cable provider. In those communities, the prices remain high. Although, in the communities where cable providers compete for customers, the prices have decreased. (Campbell et al., 2017)

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Seal of the FCC

Signing the Act into a Law
The Act was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on February 8, 1996. The signing of the bill, passed by the Senate and House of Representatives, was notable for several reasons. It was the first law ever signed at the Library of Congress. The pen that President Clinton used to sign it was the same one used by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to sign the Interstate Highway Act of 1957. This was symbolic because together, the media are often called the “information superhighway.” After President Clinton signed the 1996 Act in ink, he also signed it digitally online. This was the first time that a bill was signed into law digitally. (Lamolinara 1996)

Implementation and Enforcement of the Act
While the Act outlines what Congress wanted to do, Congress did not know all the details of running businesses in the telecommunications field. The day-to-day implementation and enforcement of the Act is therefore handled by the Federal Communications Commission, (the FCC). It works with the industry to create regulations and govern the details of running these businesses. (Federal Communications Commission 2014)


Campbell, R., Martin, C. R., & Fabos, B (2017). Media & Culture: Mass Communication in a Digital Age 11th Edition. (199-200). Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Econmides, N. (1988). The Telecommunications Act of 1996 and its impact. Retrieved December 05, 2017 SSRN Electronic Journal, doi: 10.2139/ssrn.81289

Federal Communication Commission. (2014).  Telecommunications Act of 1996. Retrieved December 05, 2017, from

Lamolinara, G. (1996). Library of Congress. Wired for the Future President Clinton Signs Telecom Act at LC. Retrieved, December 05, 2017, from https:

Sterling, H., Christopher. Understanding the Telecommunications Act of 1996,. Retrieved December 05, 2017, from Indiana University Federal Communications Law Journal.

Image Attribution: The image used in this post is in the Public Domain

Written by Ashley Waldman, 2017