WASHINGTON, July 28 (UPI) -- The United States has been the leader in telecommunications technology ever since Samuel F. B. Morse transmitted the message, "What hath God wrought?" over copper wire with his pioneering telegram in 1844.
Now, according to Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and others, U.S. technological and innovative leadership will decline in the world market if the domestic regulatory structure does not adjust to the ever-changing nature of the telecom markets.
"We are no longer among the top 10 countries in terms of percentage of citizenry that have high-speed Internet access -- considering (the United States) invented high-speed Internet access," Lieberman said at a Senate panel discussion Wednesday.
The pace of worldwide technological innovation speeds forward, but Congress has been slow to react with legislation to facilitate the dissemination of new technology to society. Its last foray into the issue was the Telecommunications Act of 1996, intended to encourage competition among telecoms while ensuring the availability of services to all Americans.
According to the Federal Communications Commission Web site, the 1996 law represented the first major reform in the field since 1934.
In the 21st century, an update every 62 years may no longer be sufficient. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said the Telecommunications Act of 1996 became outdated only months after it was signed.
"Nobody talked about anything except telephones," Kerry said.
In order to ensure continued growth in the economy and the telecom field, Kerry said needed revisions included, "consumer protection, the digital divide itself, the competitiveness in the road to innovation and access."
Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., concurred that reforms must be enacted to promote further telecom advances and market growth.
Internet access as a whole in the United States is relatively widespread. According to PC Magazine's Internet World Stats, 68.5 percent of the U.S. population uses the Internet, compared with 46.9 percent in the European Union and 14.6 percent worldwide. The only countries ranking higher in Internet usage are Denmark, Hong Kong and Sweden.
National Education Association director Kim Anderson said 96 percent to 98 percent of U.S. classrooms are now connected to the Internet, up from 3 percent in 1996.
Despite the progress, the United States is falling behind in broadband, which provides Internet access more than twice as rapidly as telephone lines by being able to carry multiple signals simultaneously.
Pryor said that, in the last five years, the United States has slipped from third to 16th among industrialized nations in broadband usage -- although different methods of counting alter the ranking slightly.
Kerry said although 35 million U.S. households already have broadband Internet, "that is nothing compared to what they're doing in South Korea."
George Kohl, director of research and development for the Communications Workers of America, said that in Korea, bright but poor children receive free computers and five-year subscriptions to Internet service providers from the government.
Pryor predicted that broadband would be the future foundation of U.S. economic growth.
"(Broadband) will no longer be a discretionary add on, but will be the platform for wealth and commercial and social interactions," he said.
"If we start making the right investments and decisions in telecom revamping, then there is no doubt this industry will play a key role in the economic future of this country," Kerry said.
Anderson agreed with Pryor's prediction for the future of broadband, but she noted that a reformed telecom act should focus on providing broadband technology nationwide -- including to rural areas.
"We must ensure that our policies are as good for the early adopters as they are for those who don't even have a computer today," Pryor said. "It needs to work for the Americans who work hard under the sun ... and it needs to work for the BlackBerry crowd."
He predicted there would be challenges when it comes to reshaping a bill that tries to cover the broad umbrella of telecom. For example, he said, because of large pending telecom mergers -- such as Sprint and Nextel -- the industry's structure may change.
"As we consider legislation, we must also be careful to ensure that any new regulatory regime reserves sufficient authority to ensure that competitive dynamics in communications markets are maintained," Pryor said.
"That's why we cannot allow the coming legislative battle over telecommunications to become a contest within the industry," Lieberman said. "It has got to be focused on goals for societies and individual members of society with goals to move technology forward."
Lara Salahi and Eva Sylwester are interns for UPI Science News. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org