Levin: Reclaiming Spectrum For Broadband Puts FCC On 'Right Side' Of History

Top FCC broadband advisor Blair Levin said Friday that he believed the national broadband plan's proposal to reclaim spectrum from broadcasters--and other incumbent users--put it on "the right side of history" and was one of the parts of the plan he was most proud of.

In an interview with C-SPAN's Communicators series, Levin declined to comment directly on a recent speech by his former boss, then FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, that Hundt's plan had always been for broadband to replace broadcasting as the national medium.

Levin said he would leave the media historian post to Hundt for now. But he said what was "certainly true" was that every country needed a "common medium that has certain characteristics." He did not elaborate on those, but he conceded that the FCC had made a number of decisions back then (in the mid-1990's) "that were useful to the Internet and to broadband."

Levin said that it was the market driving the move to broadband. He cited a report in 2000 that found that 80% of the respondents would rather give up the Internet than TV, compared with today, when "a majority of people say they would rather give up television. If you look up the under-45 [age group], it is overwhelming. That is consumers speaking. That is the market speaking."

And in terms of the financial market speaking, Levin said the spectrum proposal is a way to "enable the market to send signals about the relative worth of spectrum versus existing business models."

Levin, a former Wall Street analyst, said that if there was an investment company forced to invest money based on how it invested it 60 years ago, it would go out of business. "The single biggest capital investment that the U.S. government makes every year in terms of the broadband ecosystem is how it allocates spectrum. And yet, in many ways, spectrum is being allocated not on the basis of markets, not on the basis of technology, not on the basis of consumer demand, but rather on the basis of history."

He said the FCC needs to be able to have the tools, like giving incumbents incentives to exit or share their spectrum. Congress would need to give the commission the authority for incentive auctions, in which broadcasters would be compensated for giving up spectrum. But if it does, "there will be a sufficient number of broadcasters to volunteer."

Levin said a small number of broadcasters in a small number of cities could create a huge upside for the country. "That is really what we are asking for, and once that is well understood, Congress will feel that they should give us those tools."

Asked about industry concern over the FCC "controlling Internet services," Levin said that it was an important debate, and one that was outside the broadband plan's focus. He did say that he felt that that there needs to be a government agency overseeing some aspects of broadband, though he did not include the hot button issue of network neutrality, which is the subject of a separate proceeding.

"From a planning perspective, we think there has to be a government agency--and we think the FCC in a lot of cases is the right government agency--that has the jurisdiction to make sure that broadband is everywhere, to make sure there are policies that assure it is affordable, that make sure there are policies that assist with low income folks, that make sure that we are supporting schools and healthcare facilities with connectivity. We need to make sure that spectrum is available. I think most people would agree that government has an appropriate role in doing those things."

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.