Today marks the 80th anniversary of the 1934 Communications Act. Signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Act was basically a shuffling of the Federal Radio Act of 1927 and the Mann-Elkins Act of 1910, which covered telephone service. From Wikipedia:
The stated purposes of the Act are “regulating interstate and foreign commerce in communication by wire and radio so as to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States a rapid, efficient, nationwide, and worldwide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges, for the purpose of the national defense, and for the purpose of securing a more effective execution of this policy by centralizing authority theretofore granted by law to several agencies and by granting additional authority with respect to interstate and foreign commerce in wire and radio communication, there is hereby created a commission to be known as the ‘Federal Communications Commission’, which shall be constituted as hereinafter provided, and which shall execute and enforce the provisions of this Act.”
While the 1934 Act served America quite well for over six decades, in 1996 it was given a much-needed overhaul to better reflect the technology of the day. But even that overhaul now seems like a bit of a relic, as today’s current broadband age — both wired and wireless — has completely revolutionized America’s communications.
With some activists currently calling for the FCC to reclassify broadband services under Title II, it’s worth remembering that Title II was originally part of the 1934 Act. In other words, those pushing for reclassification of broadband services want the FCC to use an 80 year old law to govern the modern Internet.
Rather than brute force a law on the books since before World War II, a smarter way to govern today’s Internet — and whatever shape the Internet takes in years to come — would be to once again revisit the Communications Act. A lot has changed in 80 years, after all, and relying on such an outdated framework for today’s technology could very easily do much more harm than good.
So this is pretty cool. At The Atlantic, Alex Wright highlights the fact the World Wide Web’s origins date back farther than we think. An excerpt:
When Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” first appeared in The Atlantic’s pages in July 1945, it set off an intellectual chain reaction that resulted, more than four decades later, in the creation of the World Wide Web.
In that landmark essay, Bush described a hypothetical machine called the Memex: a hypertext-like device capable of allowing its users to comb through a large set of documents stored on microfilm, connected via a network of “links” and “associative trails” that anticipated the hyperlinked structure of today’s Web.
Historians of technology often cite Bush’s essay as the conceptual forerunner of the Web. And hypertext pioneers like Douglas Engelbart, Ted Nelson, and Tim Berners-Lee have all acknowledged their debt to Bush’s vision. But for all his lasting influence, Bush was not the first person to imagine something like the Web.
In the years leading up to World War II, a number of European thinkers were exploring markedly similar ideas about information storage and retrieval, and even imagining the possibility of a global network—a feature notably absent from the Memex. Yet their contributions have remained largely overlooked in the conventional, Anglo-American history of computing.
Chief among them was Paul Otlet, a Belgian bibliographer and entrepreneur who, in 1934, laid out a plan for a global network of “electric telescopes” that would allow anyone in the world to access to a vast library of books, articles, photographs, audio recordings, and films.
This is the Bell 101 modem, which was the first device made available publicly for connecting to the Internet. It made its debut in 1959, and was able to transfer data at a blazing 110 bits per second.
This is the Z3, also known as the first electromechanical computer. Over at the blog World Information, Danish Khan writes:
The Z3 was an electromechanical computer designed by Konrad Zuse. It was the world’s first working programmable, fully automatic computing machine. It was Turing-complete, at least in theory, and by modern standards the Z3 was one of the first machines that could be considered a complete computing machine, although it lacked the conditional branch operation. The Z3 was built with 2000 relays, implementing a 22 bit word length that operated at a clock frequency of about 5–10 Hz.Program code and data were stored on punched film.
The finishing touches on the Z3 were completed in 1941, but the machine’s life was short-lived. Just two years later, Allied bombing in Berlin destroyed it.
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the World Wide Web entering the public domain. To mark the occasion, CERN — the research group that made the web as we know it possible — has relaunched the world’s first website at its original URL. The image above is what the page looked like, but check it out in all its sparse glory on your own.
Here’s something interesting for your Friday. At GigaOm, Laura Hazard Owen writes about a research project aimed at predicting the future:
Researchers at Microsoft and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology are creating software that analyzes 22 years of New York Times archives, Wikipedia and about 90 other web resources to predict future disease outbreaks, riots and deaths — and hopefully prevent them.
The new research is the latest in a number of similar initiatives that seek to mine web data to predict all kinds of events. Recorded Future, for instance, analyzes news, blogs and social media to “help identify predictive signals” for a variety of industries, including financial services and defense. Researchers are also using Twitter and Google to track flu outbreaks.
On Wednesday at the Brookings Institution event “Fostering Internet Competition” in DC, my friend and Harvard Professor Susan Crawford suggested that we look at the spread of electricity throughout rural America to guide a path for the deployment of broadband. While this feel-good analogy stirs American pride in the ingenuity that colors our nation’s history, it doesn’t hold water.
Electricity shocked the world in 1882, when Edison’s Pearl Street Power Station started up its generator in New York City. Within just a few years, Americans living in big cities would be able to choose from among 20 to 30 different providers, such as the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York. But most Americans weren’t able to take advantage of electricity until half a century later, because there wasn’t a strong enough business-case for electricity providers to serve every town on the Oregon Trail. It was the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 that said “let there be light” (for all), providing federal loans for the installation of electrical distribution systems to serve rural areas of the United States.
Over 75 years later, this commodity hasn’t changed all that much. The same type of electricity that powered the lamps of the 19th Century powers the light, appliances and devices of today. The Internet on the other hand is anything but static. It’s a rapidly-changing technology that has evolved many times in the past two decades alone, since the first commercial traffic crossed it in 1992. Thanks to a vibrant, competitive industry, relentless innovation and a rapacious consumer appetite, we’re seeing new “flavors” of broadband every year, including DSL, fiber-to-the-home, fixed wireless broadband, 3G, mobile LTE, and so on.
Much has changed since the government financed the spread of electricity across our nation. Unlike when taxpayers financed electrification, broadband is already widely available — more than 90% of consumers can choose among five or more providers, according to Federal Communication Commission data. Also unlike 1936, our national debt now exceeds $16,000,000,000,000, putting far greater pressure on how we spend our critical infrastructure dollars, especially as the FCC acknowledges that the cost of universal high-speed networks could reach $350 billion. Most importantly, we have private sector competitors eager to make those investments, to install, upgrade and maintain the broadband networks that make our economy so much more competitive. Rather than a Rural Electrification Act, we need a Regulatory Extraction Act, getting government out-of-the way of investment, starting with relinquishing more spectrum to commercial broadband usage.
So while Susan is right that extending next-generation broadband infrastructure to every corner of our country must be a priority, she and I differ on the means to that end. 2012 is not 1936, and modern broadband is not early electricity. Rural Electrification does not offer a viable roadmap.
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