Federal Communications Commission

It Takes a Worried Man… Sharing His Worries

September 3rd, 2009 by Blair Levin - Executive Director, Omnibus Broadband Initiative

Blair LevinA useful framework for approaching the goal of providing universal access to affordable, robust broadband is straightforward, and looks something like this:

Broadband provides lots of benefits to the economy and society, and the more widely available broadband is, the greater the benefits.

But there are costs to universal deployment that may not be immediately recouped, such as the expense of laying fiber in rural areas, acquiring rights-of-way, or clearing spectrum for wireless broadband.  And once a network is in place, low rates of adoption could delay enjoyment of the economic and societal gains.

As government policies inherently affect both the revenues and the costs of broadband, part of our job, in thinking about a national broadband plan, is to explore whether those policies should be adjusted to increase the revenues and decrease the costs of inputs associated with broadband. Simple.

Well, not exactly. While press questions following my recent speech at the Udwin Breakfast Group focused on my worries about one particular input - sufficient spectrum to accommodate our hunger for fast smart phones and 4G mobile networks - my worries are as universal as broadband should be.

I'm worried that low adoption doesn't provide sufficient incentives to build out and upgrade the wireline, cable and wireless networks that our country will need for sustainable economic growth.

I'm worried that we need funds to achieve universal broadband but that one potential source of funding - the Universal Service fund - is already stretched thin.

I'm worried that there is no way the government's existing broadband grant program can possibly meet the enthusiastic response it has received, with seven dollars of demand for every available dollar in the first round.

We are looking for creative solutions from everyone - government, think tanks, spectrum license holders, wireline providers, cable systems - that will help deliver the synergies of broadband to the entire nation. The record is clear:  there are lots of opportunities.  But to take advantage of them, we need everyone to be, shall we say, "constructively worried".  So let's be creative and find a solution together so that five years from now we don't have to worry about the ramifications of our failure to plan ahead.

9 Responses to “It Takes a Worried Man… Sharing His Worries”

  1. Guest says:

    I am Rhea S. I have visited your website and I would like to congratulate you on building such a valuable online resource. I am sure your visitors find your site as useful as I did.

  2. Dan Lubar says:

    Mr Levin.. To the extent that "worry" is motivational.. I'd offer that a number of the stake holders you mention (FCC included) may wish to be "constructively worried" about the following topic.

    Specifically, what impact might access--or lack of access--to distance learning resources and/or educational content have (positive & negative) on our Nation's competitiveness in a future more "information-centric" world. (..a world that might see a given Nation's borders become less important than, say, that nation's ability to educate its workforce and make that workforce available on a global basis via the Internet)

    Spectrum availability, business models, and long-term viability of the Internet aside for a moment, for the current Administration, and perhaps for the next few Presidencies as well, our Nation may need to be mindful of the growing linkage between the availability of relevant and up-to-date education content and the ability of our citizens to get access to it--especially as one sees the standing wave of technological innovation continuing to move forward at what seems a faster & faster pace.

    In the same context of supporting a more competitive US workforce in the future world, (putting aside business models and Broadband access & capabilities issues) the question may soon be asked of the FCC how it will create a "policy foundation" that will allow our many world-class educational institutions (who are arguably a major source of innovation in this Country) to assure that their educational content will be easily accessible to US citizens. (..again, for the sake of our Nation's future companies and their future competitive advantage)

    Further, if such a "policy foundation" is needed to enable distance learning/education, how (or should?) any priority be given to enabling access to such content verses that of entertainment or user generated content?

    Despite the fact that such "social engineering" type of issue are, at best, hard to deal with directly, or quickly, or at all.. they are still very likely to be focused on. As such, these issues should be kept in mind going forward as they soon may force their way on to the stage to become the focus this Nation's policy makers in the not too distant future.

  3. Wilma Peterson says:

    At the Workshop today it was mentioned that you are also worried about whether the FCC can get the Broadband Plan done by the deadline.

    Um, suggestion, it would help ge the plan done if the FCC werent releasing NOIs on every subject they can find under a rug anywhere. Is it just me or does it seem like "data driven process" has become an excuse to restart every single proceeding you blokes can think of - I cant really see how FCC staff can focus on the plan when there inquiring about everything else simultaneously.

    Normal battle strategy is to take all your resources and focus it on your priority, that a navy spread too thin is vulnerable. Stay focused.

  4. Guest says:

    Put simply, affordable, universal access is absolutely essential to enabling this country to compete in the world market. Sometimes the best interests of the nation as a whole must be put ahead of corporate interests. Until this is achieved, all extraneous issues need to be set aside for another time.

  5. LIC Of India says:

    "the more widely available broadband is, the greater the benefits"

    Very true statement...... a broadband is very much important for e commerce and next level of business and society.

    LIC of India

  6. Steve Forstner says:

    Requests for seven times the available money would seem to indicate a solid desire for the product. The problem of finding a market seems to be overcome.

  7. Brett Glass says:


    You mention that "press questions following [your] recent speech at the Udwin Breakfast Group focused on my worries about one particular input - sufficient spectrum to accommodate our hunger for fast smart phones and 4G mobile networks."

    Alas, as someone who would dearly love to have the smallest sliver of exclusively licensed spectrum with which to deploy high speed Internet service, I can tell you that the current "shortage" of such spectrum is artificially manufactured. In my small city of Laramie, Wyoming, the majority the licensed spectrum sold at auction sits utterly idle -- socked away by large corporations which have bought it specifically to keep it out of play and to foreclose competition. There are no secondary markets for this spectrum (when we've tried to license it, we've essentially been told to go away) and no way to obtain it in a fashion that would allow a wireless broadband provider to break even, much less make a healthy profit.

    In short, our current regime -- in which we auction off indefinitely renewable, exclusive licenses to the bidder with the deepest pockets require immediate payment (rather than payment per month or per year or as a percentage of revenue) -- is, simply, broken and is the source of the problem.

    I'm struggling every day -- and, yes, I'm working on Labor Day! -- to deploy Internet so as to bring the educational and societal benefits you mention above to unserved areas. Once they're there, we see a "virtuous cycle" in which greater education leads to greater broadband adoption and vice versa.

    But small, local providers like me need your help. The current regulatory regime -- designed to suit a monopolistic or at best a duopolistic telecommunications environment -- needs to be changed to remove barriers to entry and to competition. As I mentioned at the workshop on the 13th, we need three things: access to the backbone; access to spectrum; access to capital. Our business will grow, organically and without subsidy, if we can simply obtain these things. (And the last, really, is simply contingent upon the other two; we'll get capital if investors believe that conditions are right for us to succeed.) "Special access" regulation is warranted, because it addresses a real market failure and a real anticompetitive threat; "network neutrality" regulation is not, because it addresses a fictional "threat" that has never actually occurred and would scare away investors.

    And what I say here is not merely self-serving. A broadband plan that would enable WISPs would enable all broadband providers. And that's fine; I expect to have to compete. All I and other WISPs need is a reasonable chance to compete and to serve America's citizens -- and, if given it, we will make good on it.

  8. Guest says:

    While access -- thought of as availability -- is very important, there is also "accessibility" which means that users with disabilities must be able to get to the infrastructure, use the applications and otherwise have "equivalent functionality" or the same experience as users without disabilities. This means the blind person has an equivalent experience to that enjoyed by non-blind and they can use the applications independently without someone "helping" them. For instance, if health information technology databases or electronic health records are accessed online, there is no privacy for the blind person if they have to ask someone to do this for them just becuase the developer "forgot" to build in an alternate mode of access. If privacy or security safeguards for health information are not designed with this type of accessibility ahead of time, there is no "access" for the blind person. The current example is CAPTCHA that checks you are a human using the site, they had to add audio capchta for blind people.

  9. LIC India says:

    Amazing! Yes, I agree that broadband is the most important and booming industry. Thanks for such a Good thing. Keep up Good work. :-)

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