Levin Says Broadband Grant Program Will Be 'Balancing Act'

Wants to stimulate jobs and at the same time build useful infrastructure

Blair Levin, an Obama transition team tech advisor who worked on the broadband grant portion of the stimulus package, says that handing out the billions in grant money will be balancing act between "stimulating jobs and at the same time build useful infrastructure." But, he said he didn't think anybody knew yet just how it would be administered.

For example, he said, we could create a lot of jobs by building fiber to the igloos in Alaska. "That is not the sole purpose," of the stimulus, he said Monday at a Free State Foundation lunch in Washington.

Levin agreed with moderator and Free State Foundation President Randolph May that it would be something of a "chicken and egg" scenario.

"We don't know what kind of proposals are going to come in," he said, of requests to tap into some of the $4 billion-plus the government has set aside to get broadband service to unserved and underserved areas.

Levin said that those proposals should definitely be looked at in terms of job creation, "but if one proposal costs $100 million and creates 10,000 jobs, but only connects three people, and the other one costs $200 million, a few less jobs, but connects a million people, you probably want the latter." But he said he didn't think there would be "an algorithm" that will tell you ahead of time as to which proposals will be adopted.

He said that the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, which is administering most of the grant money (the USDA gets a little over a third) will need to a "transparent and flexible process" for making those judgment calls, which he conceded was not an easy task.

May raised the chicken and egg scenario, suggesting the proposals will depend to some extent on how NTIA plans to administer it.

For example, there are certain conditions on the grants, including open access conditions, which have yet to be defined. May asked whether Blair were advising companies who wanted to apply for the grants, would the emphasis be on speed--faster rollout and faster job creation--and in the process sacrificing goals of nondiscrimination or network neutrality.

Levin reiterated that there are a host of competitive factors involved. He suggested that some of the industry players who came in to talk to the team "wanted to get money, but mostly they didn't want their competitors to get money." Levin said they didn't use those exact words.

There was a divide between cable companies and telcos over speed issues. The cable industry was concerned that setting a minimum speed threshold would favor the more heavily fibered phone companies.

Levin did give some general parameters: Faster speeds are better than slower speeds, and more private money was better than less, but said there is "no single metric."