Levin: Broadband Comments Don't Move Ball Forward

Said the comments lacked helpful data, analysis of tradeoffs and "seriousness of purpose."
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Blair Levin, the FCC's broadband czar, is not impressed with the FCC's submissions from the public and industry on the grand broadband plan, suggesting there was too much pie in the sky and not enough pie chart on the page.

He said the comments lacked helpful data, analysis of tradeoffs and "seriousness of purpose."

Levin said he had been immersed in reading the first round of comments over the past week and was "much less optimistic" than he was when then FCC Chairman Michael Copps asked him to come in and head up the broaband plan effort.

That characterization came during a panel discussion on the FCC's broadband plan at the Minority Media & Telecommunications Council access to capital conference in Washington -- also the eve of the second round of comments due to the FCC on the plan.

Levin ended his talk by literally begging for better input. "We really need your best ideas. And we need them quickly and clearly."

"While there is a lot of interesting commentary and a lot of agreement on the opportunites that the plan presents," he told his audience, "there is also very little in the 8,500-and-some pages that moves the ball forward."

In fact, he said, there was a lot of agreement on various issues, like the need for adoption, but he said the comments don't get the problem the FCC faces, which is to come up with a way to get from here to there, that is cost efficient and doable.

"There are a lot of different ideas and they all sound great, but at the end of the day we have to make choices about where to spend what are frankly going to be very scarce dollars to drive that adoption."

He said what he needs are clear ideas that solve a problem, deliver a return, can gain a consensus, and will be relatively easy to accomplish.

"A good idea that requires very difficult, complicated execution has a fundamental problem."

Levin and the FCC have a lot to do in the remaining 212 days until the Feb. 17 deadline Congress has set for the plan.

He said there were plenty of aspirational comments and goals and great ideas, but what was lacking was an implementation strategy that weighed the tradeoffs.

"We're all in agreement that we need more spectrum out there. But everyone just says 'get it from somebody else.' There is very little said about how to make it so."

"Every day we are wasting spectrum," he said. "There is a cost to the economy. We need to get more specturm utilized faster and that has a huge impact on rolling out broadband the way you want it rolled out."

He said there was agreement on the need to reach unserved communities, but not much helpful data about the best way to implement it.

Levin did not mince any words, saying that some people were asking for money as though just asking was sufficient.

"Look, I've got to say this. We are not going to be Santa Clause," he said.

He said that not every incremental dollar will provide the same incremental value.

"People are not approaching this from the perspective of helping us analyze what the trade-offs are," he said.

He said the comments ask the FCC to set goals and take philosophical positions, but that "none of these things help us do what is fundamentally a plan, not a report."

He said he needs insight tied to "an actual government action." Declaring that every American should get x amount of broadband by a certain date "doesn't move the ball forward in terms of actually accomplishing that goal."

He was not sure why the comments were not as helpful as he would like. He suggested, tongue half in cheek, that maybe it reflected the view that the FCC was not that interested in a data-driven project. He cited a "large telco" and its intellectual sloppiness in including a slide that contradicted the point it was trying to make.

He said it was not just about mistakes but "sloppiness of thinking," which he said characterized some filings on all sides.

Levin said that the FCC is going to have to demonstrate the public policy return on whatever investment it makes in broadband, particularly if it is going back to Congress for more money or reallocating FCC funds.

"Outside the bubble of this room," he said, "there was extreme skepticism about broadband in the stimulus package and in a variety of other contexts." And he said there was reason for that skepticism, citing problems with the Universal Service Fund, about which there is almost universal agreement for some kind of reform.

Levin said he understood that part of the problem was the "mine first" mentality of lobbyists, which he said he understood was part of their job. "They protect their market share first before they think about how they increase the market." But he warned that "that mindframe may turn out to be inconsistent with our country's long-term economic and social interests."

Levin said the most disturbing problem was what he called a lack of seriousness of purpose, saying that, "if we don't capture [broadband opportunites] fairly soon and in a big way, there are significant dangers to our overall economy as well as our society."

Levin made it clear that while he agreed with many of the aspirational comments, he had "a different job."

"Yes, we can do very great things, but we cannot do that unless we have a different kind of mindframe coming into this process."

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