U.S. broadband plan author talks about his regrets

Blair Levin discusses why he wishes he'd done a better job of explaining the plan and a GAO report about it


Blair Levin is a fellow at the Aspen Institute and was the lead author of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) controversial National Broadband Plan. He spoke with David Ramli in a telephone interview about his regrets and the rising importance of wireless over wired connections.

David Ramli: How satisfied have you been with the public's reception of the National Broadband Plan so far?

Blair Levin: I think that as we were rolling it out we should've done a better job of explaining some of the ideas behind it as opposed to simply the policy recommendations so that folks could have a better idea of where we were coming from.

The most important thing to understand is that broadband is not important in and of itself. It is important because it is the vehicle of knowledge exchange, which turns out to be an incredibly important driver of economic and job growth and critical for a civic society.

DR: The things you just described are relatively esoteric and that seems to be a problem faced by all countries trying to sell national broadband plans to their people.

BL: One of the problems we were running up against and that we should've been clearer about is that the conventional wisdom says the primary metric for measuring the validity or power of a national broadband plan is the speed of the wireline network to the most rural of residents. That way of looking at the problem is entirely wrong, is profoundly wrong -- almost every word in the sentence I just uttered is wrong. And we should've done a better job of explaining that.

DR: Why is it wrong?

BL: Number one, it's not a primary metric, it's an ecosystem. And if you think there's a single factor that measures something, you don't understand how what you want is a constantly improving platform for knowledge exchange. So you want networks, devices, applications and, most importantly, people interacting to constantly improve how they operate.

The one that's most wrong is the speed. Speed is the input and use is the output. We should be thinking about how we use it because the real upside is not in increasing speed, it's in increasing the applications.

A third thing is that it's almost always about wireline and it turns out wireless is going to be the key driver of growth in the next decade. On the institutional side, speed is incredibly important but what we found was for most of the country speeds are actually pretty good. I would say that 4G is going to end up being more important to more people over the next couple of years than increases in wireline speed.

I think people think that because going from 500Kbps to 5Mbps was so dramatically important, going from 5Mbps to 50Mbps would be just as important. Now that's not actually necessarily true and, in fact, one of the studies we did said consumers themselves understand that.

It's not about speed, it's about use; it's not about wireline, it's about the right mix of wireline and wireless; and it's not about residential, it's about different product markets. And it's not just about rural, it's about everywhere and having the right speeds for the right places. We spend a huge amount of money on 20th-century [voice] technology in rural America and that needs to be changed.

DR: When the Government Accountability Office came out with its report into the National Broadband Plan, did you agree with its findings?

BL: I just got back after a week in Europe so I've only read press reports of it, and my basic read is that it said it was in line with a lot of other countries but would be hard to implement.

There is some truth in that but I would say ... the plan was different because of its focus on the application side. I think the emphasis on spectrum was also different to a lot of other countries' plans. Ronald Reagan once said correctly that, "there are simple answers, they are just not easy ones." For example, on Universal Service, is there a commitment to moving the funding from the current system, which has both inefficiencies and is focused on yesterday's technology, into tomorrow's technology.

As Machiavelli once said, whenever you change things, those who are hurt by it understand the consequences and are going to be organized and those who will benefit are generally not. But you still have to have commitment to change.

DR: What will be the hardest thing to implement?

BL: In some senses Universal Service changes is going to be the hardest thing, and it's the single largest fund of money that we spend on this stuff. The spectrum stuff is very important and it's a long-term play. People are coming to understand we need a system that allocates spectrum on a basis of opportunity, technologies, consumer preferences and not on the basis of history. People, at least on a principle basis, are starting to understand that incentive auctions are right.

An incentive auction structure [for spectrum] that has more of a market orientation works no matter what happens because it reacts to signals from the marketplace. Having a massive regulatory regime based on the theory that someone may become a monopolist in the future may become very problematic because it may turn out that's not true at all, and that affects investment decisions.

DR: Is it a major negative for governments that are selling national broadband plans to their people that countries with fast broadband like Korea and Japan haven't exploded with benefits because of them?

BL: The National Broadband Plan was not about the government building new networks ... The fact that Korea and Japan can't point to huge increases in their economic growth due to that is important to analytics, but it's not important to how people reacted to the broadband plan.

DR: How likely is it that America will get 100 million households with access to 100Mbps broadband by 2020?

BL: I used to be in the equity analyst business where I was supposed to come up with ratings like, 'likely,' 'highly likely' or 'not likely.' I actually don't know how to answer that question in a way that's meaningful. ...The goals are a compass and we should be heading in their direction.

I think we'll get there, but I'm not sure and part of the reason we did those goals was to say, "if we're not moving in that direction, then maybe we have to look at the policies we've proposed and said they weren't sufficient" ... If we don't get 1Gbps to every community and if we don't get a nationwide interoperable public safety network, then we should re-think what we were trying to do.

It's actually not about speed as much as it's about making sure we're the big addressable market for advanced applications, because we want people to build them for the United States. At the end of the day I'm very confident a lot of good is going to come of the effort we put in over the last year. I'm optimistic in a macro sense.

DR: Are wireless networks where the future is? Is the use of fiber-optic networks overblown?

BL: What is interesting to me is the way some people judge a broadband plan solely on the speed of the wired line network to the most rural residents. That's what I'm fighting against and that's the wrong way to look at it. I think over the next 10 years changes in wireless are going to be the biggest driver of growth in the economy.

Mobile broadband is a horizon industry. This means it is the industry to which every other industry will find new tools for innovation and growth. Whether you're in transportation, manufacturing, retail, health care or any other industry, you're going to be responding to the fact that millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of Americans will be carrying with them devices capable of doing things that 50 years ago you could only do in computer labs. That is a profound change. There will be big winners and losers and it's very important America has leadership on the application, device and network sides.

But it's a mistake to think of wireless communications as separate to wired communications. Most wireless communications are riding over wire, so one has to have both networks working well.

DR: How important is fiber to the home?

BL: It would be great if Universal Service could fund fiber to the home anywhere the market wasn't going to pay for it, but great does not mean it's a good idea. The economic benefit of funding that as opposed to funding other things has to be considered.

DR: Of all the countries you looked at, which stood out as the best example of how to roll out a national broadband plan?

BL: In some ways Korea, but not because they had an exact model for us to follow. It's because Korea had a process, they were dedicated, they were long-term thinkers and they corrected. They stayed with the vision but adjusted when necessary. So it's that process of understanding that the plan should always be in beta. ... The thing I admired most was sticking to a plan in the long term while constantly re-adjusting in the face of changing technologies and markets.

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