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Congressional leaders call for Communications Act makeover

Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.) say it's time to bring the 1996 law, which governs the nation's communications networks, into the 21st century.

Marguerite Reardon/CNET

Two House Republicans are looking to update the law governing the nation's communications networks.

On Tuesday, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Fred Upton (R-Mich) and chairman of the Communications Subcommittee Greg Walden (R-Ore.) announced plans to reform the Communications Act of 1996 to reflect changes in the technological and competitive landscape in the 21st century. The congressmen said the act, which hasn't been updated in nearly two decades, is in dire need of a refresh.

"When the Communications Act was updated almost 18 years ago, no one could have dreamed of the many innovations and advancements that make the Internet what it is today," Walden said in a statement. "Written during the Great Depression and last updated when 56 kilobits per second via dial-up modem was state of the art, the Communications Act is now painfully out of date."

Upton and Walden announced their plans during a Google hangout. Neither Upton nor Walden went into specifics about what should be changed in the statute, which is used by the Federal Communications Commission to guide policy for industries, such as cable and satellite TV, wireless telephony, and broadband.

The lawmakers said they plan to begin the process of rewriting the law with a series of hearings in 2014, and they expect to have the updates completed in 2015. Democrat John Dingell of Michigan cautioned his fellow congressional leaders to be careful in crafting reforms.

"As the author of every major telecommunications statute for the past three decades, I caution my Republican colleagues to approach modernizing the Communications Act with great care and attention to detail," he said. "Changes should not be made simply for change's sake, but rather based on clear and documented need."

He called on his Republican colleagues to work together in a bipartisan manner in order "to preserve and promote American leadership in the telecommunications industry." And he pledged his willingness to work to achieve this goal.

Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said he supports reforming the Communications Act.

"Some provisions of the act have yellowed with age, unchanged, since the Great Depression; even those of more recent vintage predate the transformative impacts of the Internet, competition, and innovation," he said in a statement. "In a converged industry, it does not make sense to apply different rules to providers and technologies that compete in the same markets."

Others in the communications industry also support the idea of updating the law. Michael Powell, a former chairman of the FCC and currently chief executive of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, said the time is right to make changes.

"We have long maintained that many of the laws governing the communications marketplace are frayed," he said in a statement. "Since their creation, the landscape has been transformed [by] new, unimagined products and services as well as dramatic changes in market structure."

Verizon Communications, the largest phone company in the US, also supports updating the Communications Act.

"America's communications laws are fast becoming obsolete in the face of the rapid change in new technologies, and in turn, threaten our country's economic growth and global competitiveness," Peter Davidson, senior vice president of federal government affairs at Verizon, said in a statement. "Chairman Walden and Chairman Upton have started the process of putting in place a 21st century communications policy framework that will help encourage innovation [and] investment, and [that] meets the needs of consumers."