A not-so-sweet 16

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Few milestones are as memorable as a child’s sixteenth birthday. With the celebration of newfound independence comes a parent’s realization that in what seems like a very short time, so much has changed.

But imagine if, as children grew and evolved, we bound them to the same rules and restrictions as we did when they were young.

This is what we have done to the communications industries through the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which celebrates its not-so-sweet 16th anniversary today. Modern broadband companies are dynamic — and quite unlike what the 1996 act provided for.

In 1996 the Internet was still largely in the control of the federal government, major academic institutions, and hobbyists. Personal computing was a growing industry, but for most of us communications between machines was through a dial-up connection on what become known as bulletin boards; leaving messages in shorthand strikingly similar to what young people use today in text messages.

Technology has moved swiftly and far in the 16 years since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 became law. In 1996 Motorola introduced its groundbreaking “StarTac” phone — the first “flip” phone — which was available for the low, low price of $1,000. It had a limited dot-matrix display and didn’t do much except send and receive phone calls. Imagine a cell phone that is only a phone.

In 1996 Amazon.com was just about a year old and there was still considerable doubt that the business model of people buying things like books on their computer screens rather than at a store and hoping the vendor would actually deliver the correct item to the correct address was far from a proven concept. Amazon, in 1996, was still five years away from turning its first profit.

In 1996 Apple was still known as Apple Computer and was on the ropes. Things were so bad at Apple that the board had to swallow its collective pride and invite co-founder Steve Jobs back. The first Apple product to begin with a small “I” (the iPod) wasn’t to be introduced until 2001.

Speaking of Apple, it is almost impossible to believe that the iPhone wasn’t available for purchase until the summer of 2007 — four and a half years ago. The iPad will not celebrate its second birthday until this April.

In 1996 Google was still two years away from existing as a company and its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, were grad students at Stanford collaborating on a search engine named “BackRub.”

In 1996 Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was 12 years old. The social networking site, which now has an estimated 800 million active users worldwide, wouldn’t see its first outside user until 2004.

We could go on, but the simple fact is the Telecommunications Act of 1996 is woefully outdated. No one could have conceived of the explosion in access to the Internet through wired high-speed broadband connections in 95 percent of U.S. households, or of the astonishing number of “apps” available on smart phones and tablets running iOS, Android and Windows.

True, the 1996 act did lead to more competition, as telephone companies entered the video business and cable companies offered phone service. But its retro focus on opening the “long distance” market and requiring legacy phone networks to lease hardware to others seems as relevant today as rules governing telegrams and fax machines.

Rewriting the Telecommunications Act of 1996 will be a long and arduous process that will require the input and goodwill of stakeholders from the telecommunications industry, network providers, users, regulatory agencies and, of course, the U.S. Congress.

The act’s replacement must look over the horizon and strike a balance between protecting the rights of all the stakeholders and facilitating the innovation we’ve seen over the past decade and a half.

We need the brightest, most creative thinkers in on the process. If history is any guide, that might well include college students in T-shirts and jeans sitting at the table.

Who knows what they’ll be cooking up next?

Harold Ford Jr. and John E. Sununu are honorary co-chairmen of Broadband for America.