The COVID-19 crisis "is shining a light" on five "critical gaps" in broadband and national emergency policies, including issues raised in the 9/11 Commission Report and the National Broadband Plan, according to Blair Levin, who headed the FCC group that produced the NBP a decade ago. He summarized the challenges as:
- Performance gaps.
- Coverage gaps.
- Security gaps.
- Utilization gaps.
- Information gaps.
Levin, who is now a nonresident senior fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, proposes that a "new initiative should take what we’ve learned, both from the current crisis and otherwise, and use it to address" these critical gaps.
In a recent interview, Levin expanded on the points he addressed on the 10th anniversary of the release of the FCC National Broadband Plan in mid-March, which coincided with the beginning of the national COVID-19 lockdown.
Wordsmith Levin rhetorically asked "Will We Mind the Gaps?" as he focused on using COVID-19 lessons to implement new broadband solutions in the health and communications infrastructure.
"There are urgent tasks for network operators that include ensuring peak capacity remains available, expanding coverage where possible and keeping customers on-line, by, for example, voluntarily suspending disconnections for late or non-payment," Levin said.
He cited the immense changes since 2010, notably the average broadband download speed of 4.1 Mbps a decade ago - totally inadequate for today's needs - which has now increased to nearly 140 Mbps, used by "tens of millions" of customers. Levin also mentioned FCC policies that have reallocated underused wireless frequencies for National Public Safety networks, which have been valuable in the current situation. Levin (with characteristic humility) contended those developments, stemming from the NBP, are bellwethers of what must be done in the next of phase of policy making.
The major challenges will come "after the crisis," when public and private authorities must collaboratively and "rationally" analyze the results of the stresses of the COVID-19 crisis and "take whatever action they require." He told me that, as with the NBP, policy development will involve Congress, the White House, local governments and "particularly ... private enterprises," with a nod to the need that companies understand and align the incentives in a structured plan.
Finding Footing Across the Gaps
Levin's analysis and recommendation lay out paths across each of the gaps he has identified that are being spotlighted through the COVID-19 crisis.
Performance gaps. "We’ll need a deep data dive to determine whether bottlenecks occurred, and if so, where and why? Actual usage data should also inform a fresh look at how we allocate spectrum between licensed, unlicensed and shared regimes." He cites the "the voluntary lending of unutilized spectrum," and asks if such policies should be adopted for other situations?
Coverage gaps. "The current crisis underscores [that] problems remain both in terms of access—sparsely-populated areas with no high-speed providers—and adoption—households that, for different reasons, do not subscribe to broadband even when it is available." Levin believes that his proposed initiative should collect accurate data from the COVID crisis to update, recapitalize, and improve universal service programs, which would support the goal of offering broadband services to unserved and underserved communities.
Security gaps. "As we move more office work, education, and socializing to the home on a permanent basis, we need to reevaluate network security." Although Levin acknowledges that individual companies should determine their own security requirements, some services - especially telehealth and public education - may require national standards. He also contends that small businesses would benefit from detailed best practices, using experiences learned during the COVID-19 crisis.
Utilization gaps. There's an unspoken digital divide between the possibility and reality of "how our communications networks could be used to improve outcomes in education, health care and other public services, and what we are actually doing," Levin contends. He expects that the COVID crisis "is likely to unleash ... innovation, particularly with telehealth, telecommuting, and online education," adding that, "Evaluating what worked and what didn’t can help close the divide between our current reality and the potential benefits broadband can bring."
Information gaps. "We need to learn how, in any future crisis, our society can reduce the pollution of misinformation," Levin concludes, then adds a political zing: "We need to understand why the federal government, at least initially, did such a poor job of providing needed, trusted, and relevant information about the pandemic itself." He suggests that there should have been a website available in February or March where a person "could put in one’s zip code and immediately learn the status of the infections in the surrounding area, as well as where to be tested and treated."
Although Levin declined to reveal his own plans for being part of any follow-up initiative to analyze the COVID telecom after-math, he emphasized that, "We’ll need similar evaluations of hospital systems and other strategic national assets."
"It’s already clear that we must do even more to bring affordable, abundant bandwidth to all," he concluded, refraining his decade-old plea. "We must assess anew, based on new facts and new realities, how we safeguard life-saving communications technologies, improve key applications in government, health care, education, and other industries."
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