Blair Levin Hints at National Broadband Plan

Amy Schatz of the WSJ joined in the questioning of Blair Levin on this week’s installment of The Communicators. Here’s an interesting part of her story:

Mr. Levin also dismissed criticisms last week from public interest groups unhappy the plan may not propose some ideas for encouraging competition, such as rules that would require Internet providers to share their lines with competitors.

“I find their criticism not very productive,” Mr. Levin said Monday.

FCC officials have been considering the ideas, some of which were laid out in a FCC-commissioned report by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

The report suggests that other countries have faster, cheaper broadband because they adopted open access, line-sharing rules years ago. But FCC officials appear to have backed away from the open access idea in recent weeks.

“The Berkman (study) did a fantastic job of pointing out what’s going on around the world,” Mr. Levin said. “There are certain things where what’s going on in other countries really isn’t germane for where we go from here.

The video is already up at the C-Span site.

Levin gets the private investment angle, and stresses the Columbia study over the Berkman study.

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14 thoughts on “Blair Levin Hints at National Broadband Plan”

  1. Unfortunately, one disappointing thing about Levin’s remarks is that they suggested that the Broadband Plan team is going to dictate technologies which it will favor, thus effectively picking winners and losers in the broadband industry. His remarks suggest that the plan will favor fiber (as opposed to copper-based technologies such as U-verse) for fixed broadband delivery and will dedicate spectrum resources be dedicated exclusively to mobile uses (as opposed to fixed wireless).

    I hope that this does not turn out to be the case. Fixed wireless is the most cost-effective way to reach sparsely populated areas, and is extremely effective in more densely populated ones as well. And copper infrastructure has a great advantage over fiber: it’s already there, and it’s a sunk cost.

    Government does not have a good track record of predicting technological innovations, nor should it attempt to dictate which technologies or companies should succeed at the expense of others. Let’s hope that the broadband plan instead stimulates ALL innovation and aids ALL would-be providers of broadband, and lets the best technology and the best companies win.

  2. The plan isn’t going to pay or otherwise encourage people to pull new copper, and Blair understands the utility of fixed wireless for rural territories.

    The dude is fairly bright for a lawyer.

  3. You write:

    The plan isn’t going to pay or otherwise encourage people to pull new copper,

    If the plan favors any technology over any other, it is treading on dangerous ground. For example, while fiber is likely to be the most cost-effective way to build new long haul runs, 10 and 100 Gigabit Ethernet could in fact be better for short ones (e.g. between buildings or blocks in urban areas). Fiber is hard to terminate, splice, and tap, while it’s very easy to do these things with copper. So, why not let the carrier — which will act in what it perceives as its own best interests — make the call? Why should politicians be making engineering decisions and precluding innovation?

    It seems to me (and you’ve supported this idea in your own writings for ITIF) that engineering decisions should be left to engineers.

    As for the utility of fixed wireless: it extends far beyond rural areas. In fact, in suburban and urban areas, the greater population density makes it economically feasible to do short range, fixed, millimeter wave ultrabroadband.

    When I met with Blair Levin in October, he told me, “I’m the least important person in this room” — in other words, that he had delegated the judgment calls to his staff as a good manager should. What I am concerned about is that some of these staff members may be making arbitrary decisions which pick winners and losers among technologies and among companies. (Certain of the staffers are known to have strong prejudices toward certain technologies; for example, David Isenberg has long been a champion of fiber uber alles.) I think it’s important to give Blair and the Commission a “heads up” regarding this, so that the plan does not do more harm than good.

  4. You haven’t explained why a plan “must” pick winners and losers or discriminate between technologies. It seems to me that it could empower technical folks, like us, to “get the job done” without trying to do the engineering for us. And it certainly shouldn’t advise Congress to favor one company (say, Verizon) over others.

  5. It’s self-evident that a plan makes choices, it invests in some directions and not in others. If it doesn’t do that, it’s not much of a plan.

    It seems that your objection is to the mere idea of a national broadband plan, not to any specifics. I understand that point of view; a lot of government micromanagement comes down to people wanting to play entrepreneur with the tax payers’ money, but the horse it already out of the barn on this one.

  6. It seems that your objection is to the mere idea of a national broadband plan, not to any specifics.

    Yes, there are some problems with the entire idea of government attempting to create a “national plan” for a diverse private industry. However, to the extent that government does intervene in private enterprise, it shouldn’t pick winners and losers and certainly shouldn’t dictate technology choices. You’ve said this yourself, so it seems to me that perhaps you’re just being curmudgeonly here.

  7. …it is essential that our plan give current and prospective broadband network and service providers the proper incentives to deploy new technologies. We must also provide entrepreneurs with the flexibility to make full use of all available spectrum, including the television white spaces, to backhaul broadband traffic. In order to attract investors to fund the buildout of new networks, we must not engage in rulemakings that produce whimsical regulatory arbitrage. Rather, we must allow market players to succeed or fail on their own merits and not due to the government picking winners and losers. In short, our rules must allow network operators to have a reasonable opportunity to pay back their investors. That’s the only way to improve existing networks and build new ones.

    — FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell</blockquote.

  8. The phrase “avoid picking winners and losers” is very vague and general, and mostly conflicts with planning. I see the national broadband plan as a guide to government investment in broadband infrastructure, and as such it will unavoidably invest more in some technologies and providers than others. It needs to be broad and expansive rather than narrow and unnecessarily prescriptive, but there are choices to be made and all approaches to broadband service don’t have equal value to the citizens. These are facts of life.

  9. Nowhere in the statute does it say that the plan is “a guide to government investment in broadband infrastructure.”

    The plan will, presumably, include suggestions for regulation, appropriation of funds for subsidies and stimulus, management of programs such as the USF (which should be abolished altogether and replaced with something that will actually work in the 21st Century), and management of other resources dispensed by government (such as right of way and spectrum). But none of this requires that the government pick winners and losers. If it does so (e.g. by giving all available spectrum to mobile, rather than fixed, wireless providers), it will do a lot more harm than good.

  10. It’s not very complicated: as we’ve seen in the ARRA, some projects will be funded and others won’t; some investments will be get privileged tax treatment, and others won’t; some frequencies will be auctioned and others won’t. There’s no way to implement a plan without putting a finger on the scale, that’s simply the nature of the enterprise. And it’s therefore inevitable that the plan will make some mistakes, since nobody has perfect knowledge of the future, and some of the mistakes will be costly. It is therefore incumbent for critics and watchdogs to take a sober and serious view and to keep on monitoring long after the plan is developed, implemented by Congress, and rolled out.

  11. Ah, but the information that’s coming out of the FCC suggests that the plans may be far more specific — and that there may be problems with those specifics. For example, if the frequencies that are auctioned are divided into small slivers covering large geographic areas (which favors cellular providers) rather than larger channels covering smaller ones (which would be necessary for fixed wireless broadband), none of the spectrum could be put to use to compete with wired carriers. And if the auction rules are not changed, the Big Four will simply buy up all that spectrum and there will be no room for small companies, new entrants, or innovation.

    In short, the troubling thing about the interview is that it suggests that the policies will be designed to advantage very specific players.

  12. The job of spectrum policy ultimately falls on Congress, and they’re already being advised by the NTIA and the DoJ to reserve spectrum for a Third Pipe. I think Levin would like to do that as well, based on all the comments he’s made on fixed wireless.

    That being said, the public clearly has more interest in cell phones than in the Internet, and it’s wise to keep that in mind when making spectrum policy. At this point, there are over 4 billion cell phone users world-wide, and only about 1.6 billion Internet users.

  13. If the public were using their cell phones just as cell phones, there would already be enough spectrum for them and zero need to allocate more. The reason the cell phone companies are screaming for more spectrum is — no surprise! — to provide Internet.

    And that Internet service could be provided much more efficiently via fixed wireless to the building and then Wi-Fi inside the building, where the very same cell phones could use it.

    So, the choice is between prioritizing much less spectrally efficient mobile service or much more spectrally efficient fixed service.

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