Q&A: Larry Irving

The former NTIA chief talks about cross-ownership, broadband grants and the DTV transition

Larry Irving ran the NTIA under President Clinton and counseled Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). He talked with B&C about how he thinks the government should structure its broadband grant program, why he helped make the decision to delay the DTV transition, and why he has rethought his support for rolling back the FCC's deregulation of newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership.

Irving is currently co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance. The IIA is a coalition of think tanks, nonprofits and companies focused on universal broadband deployment.

You were on the team advising the Obama administration about what the NTIA should be doing. What did you tell them?

The critical issue this year is broadband, and everybody knew that. The question was, did it have the capacity? What could it do, what could it do better? Lots of folks thought the NTIA should be the fulcrum of whatever the administration decides to do with broadband. It is the only agency that has telecommunications technology responsibility and reports directly to the president.

The FCC is an independent agency. For example, it does not do high-tech and telecom. And because the NTIA has run grant programs successfully in the past, because it has laboratories where it can do sophisticated technology analysis and has the spectrum functions so it can take a look at what is happening in the wireless world, this is an opportunity to leverage all of those resources in a way that would bring broadband to America faster.

What specific advice would you give to the NTIA as it prepares to give out all this money?

Lyndon Johnson said about appointments in government that for every one, you make 99 enemies and one ingrate. The NTIA is going to be facing a similar scenario in terms of the grants. One of the things the NTIA has to be very cognizant of is that for every grant it gives, it's “thanks very much for the money, now go away.”

If you really care about a national broadband strategy, there will need to be continued review, oversight and responsibility at the NTIA, which has to file quarterly reports on every grant that goes out there.

You said last year in a policy paper that the FCC should reverse its loosening of the broadcast/newspaper cross-ownership rules. Do you still feel that way?

Speaking as Larry Irving the individual and not as a representative of IIA, I don't know that I want to open the door to every Sam Zell [who took over Tribune Co.] or see Rupert Murdoch own every media property in the country.

But I am not sure that it is an awful thing in a Seattle or Toledo or Denver or San Francisco, where we are seeing newspapers go away, that it would be the end of the First Amendment if you were actually able to get some synergies out of newspapers and broadcasting. If that meant you would keep a newspaper, maybe it would make sense to consider it on an ad hoc basis.

And my theory is that broadcast licenses are no longer the kind of hegemonic licenses they used to be, where they were the only voice in town. In fact, you are often no longer the biggest voice as a broadcaster.

Maybe you have to rethink what a newspaper is. I got a Kindle last week, and I get three of the six newspapers [I read] on the Kindle now. So some of the theological underpinnings of progressive thought in America need to at least be reconsidered.

In my opinion, what Zell has done to a great company is horrific. And I am certainly not excited about seeing anyone do what Rupert Murdoch has done, which is to use his airwaves and newspapers to effect public policy changes that he wants and beat people up who don't want what he wants.

Another thing the NTIA has to worry about, at least in the short term, is the converter box coupon program. Would you have moved the date if you had the choice, or simply fixed the accounting problem?

I was part of the team that worked to have them move the date. It looked like there was a problem that couldn't be solved. I am really excited about some of the work being done at the grass-roots level to assist people. I think it made a lot more sense if you have to get an antenna on your roof or make a lot of changes to do that in June, rather than try to get on a rooftop in Minnesota [in February].

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