Levin: Congress Not Looking For Broadband Bumper Sticker

FCC broadband advisor Blair Levin said Thursday that Congress isn't looking for a broadband bumper sticker or eloquent musings about a broadband future. It wants a plan on how to get there, a plan he is charged with coming up with in 160 days.

Levin has criticized some of the industry input into the national broadband plan as being long on philosophy and short on details on how to get the plan done, and echoed that concern, while conceding that "data alone does not solve the problem."

But he also said he had some fundamental problems with the argument that the FCC should have been focusing in its broadband workshops on regulatory philosophy rather than on what broadband can do.

That came in a speech Thursday at a Free State Foundation event headed by Levin's old friend and philosophical adversary, Randy May, who had been critical of that lack of philosophical focus, he said.

"You can have any philosophy you want but if Congress tells you to create a plan to connect every unconnected home and you don't know how many there are, where they are, the technological options, or the costs of building out and operating the networks, you are going to get the wrong answer no matter how thoughtful your philosophy," he said.

He pointed out that the FCC's broadband staffers, who have been moderating the workshops and probing panelists for help, were not "the deciders" but "servers," teeing up facts and opinions for commissioners.

The FCC is charged with coming up with a national broadband plan by Feb. 17.

Levin said that Congress "didn't ask for a bumper sticker. They didn't ask for a report in which we wax eloquent about the world we would like to see."

He also said he thought injecting philosophy into the workshops--20 have been held to date, more are scheduled--could have actually been a deterrent to learning.

He argued that the record in the broadband proceeding--whose comments he has criticized as often more aspirational than helpful--mimics that of the run-up to the credit market collapse, where analysts were unable to escape their frame of reference and see the future as an extension of the present.

"It is striking how the parties [in broadband comments] have stayed within the same framework in looking at a problem that is evolving; seeing things only in the light of long-established patterns that are tied to preferred policy outcomes, not analysis."

Levin also countered criticisms from the left for not doing more to insure workshop participants were in lockstep with a certain philosophical view. But when he countered one critic opining about nothing but the "usual lawyers and lobbyists," Levin pointed out that almost none were either. His critic, he said, only answered that he was still correct because the majority of participants represented corporations. (The workshops have since featured a number of academics and consumer group representatives, most recently on a consumer focused panel this week).

"[E]xperience suggests that when applied to a policy process, pre-existing philosophies may blind us to changes afoot, may prevent us from thinking anew," Levin argued.

Levin said that philosophy had a place in the broadband plan discussion, but only after the FCC better understood the problems that, like the financial sector's, mght not be as apparent as they will be soon.

And what does he think needs better understanding and more facts? 1) "[W]hether the supply of key inputs for the broadband ecosystem are being inefficiently constrained"; 2) "the extent to which a significant portion of our population is functionally illiterate for the 21st century workforce"; 3) "the needs, costs and options are for the nation-wide interoperable public safety network that many studies have concluded we need"; and 4) "whether our current public assets are being effectively deployed to address the problems we know are moving toward, or whether we have the ability to adjust that deployment to take advantage of modern communications networks."

On the public asset front, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has signaled that broadband wireless could be a key driver of adoption in the future and the FCC needs to make sure it is using as efficient use of the spectrum as possible.

Levin said that whatever philosophy of government one subscribed to, it was crucial to get the facts first, which might even alter those philosophies. "[W]e owe it to each other and our country to know the facts before we reach our conclusions and to be willing to rethink our perhaps outdated patterns of thoughts about these problems."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.