Sutphen Looks to Close Broadband Gap

Internet Alliance co-chair focused on bringing wireless to minority areas

The Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA), a coalition of think tanks, nonprofits and companies focused on universal broadband deployment—from AT&T to the National Education Association—has named a new co-chairman, David Sutphen.

The name is a familiar one in Washington circles. Sutphen is the former senior VP of government relations for Viacom and, before that, held a similar lobbying post with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

Among other things, the alliance trains its focus on boosting broadband adoption for minority populations that lag in broadband use. This will be in the sweet spot for Sutphen who, as former general counsel to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, handled civil rights and telecom issues.

Sutphen talked with B&C about broadband adoption, network neutrality, and the gap between the $350 billion it could cost to roll out an “ideal” broadband network and the $7 billion-plus the government has so far invested toward that effort.

Give us the short answer on what IIA is all about.

We're companies and nonprofits that believe broadband should be, and is, a priority for the country. When the organization was started five years ago, not a lot of people were talking about broadband. Fast-forward five years, and it is hard to think of a policy discussion, whether it is health care or the environment or education, where broadband isn't a core component of what people are hoping to achieve.

We are doing an event Dec. 10 at the Newseum [in Washington], a symposium that will focus on the impact of broadband in underserved communities, with a particular focus on communities of color. We will be putting out some original research that touches on issues like, “Is wireless the bridge over the digital divide? And what are some of the applications that are driving adoption by communities of color?” There is still a disconnect between access and adoption.

Is wireless the bridge?

I think if you look at the numbers, there is some reason to believe that it could be. Communities of color oversubscribe compared to the broader population in terms of the adoption of wireless. One of the things I have been saying is we need to delve a little more deeply into some of these issues.

You have about 10 million Americans who don't have access to any broadband. And then there is a universe that has access but for whatever reason, about 40% of them don't adopt.

One of the things we are going to talk about at this conference is [the push by] African-Americans and Latinos to adopt broadband through wireless platforms at a much quicker pace than wireline.

You talk about underserved, but coming to the cable side you understand that cable operators want the government to take care of unserved populations first.

The emphasis in IIA recommendations has been that the focus initially should be on areas where there is no connection whatsoever, whether there is a market failure because you can't get a reasonable return on investment or because there just hasn't been attention paid to it. At the end of the day, the first priority I would think would be those who have no connection.

There have been several groups representing minorities that have argued the FCC's network neutrality proposal could be a disincentive to adoption.

I played soccer when I was growing up. I don't know if you have ever seen kids play soccer. Everyone kind of gravitates to the ball regardless of where the ball is on the field.

IIA is having a different conversation. At the end of the day, the network neutrality conversation is about people who are already connected, not about the people who aren't. Our goal is to talk about what is happening in these communities, why aren't they adopting, and where is the investment going to come from.

The administration is the one that came out with the figure of needing close to $350 billion to build out the kind of broadband capability that we want ideally in the nation over the next five to eight years. We know there is $7 billion in the stimulus money. That is a big gap.

We need to make sure that whatever happens, whether it is in the context of the broadband plan or of net neutrality, that we don't end up in a situation in which we don't have those kinds of investments and the digital divide ends up growing.

You said the first priority of IIA would be taking care of those who have no connection whatsoever. Is the second priority adoption?

I think that goes to the point of doing an assessment, and I presume this will be part of what the national broadband plan encompasses as well, to get an understanding of why people don’t adopt.

I get the sense that some of the people who don’t adopt are afraid of the technology because maybe they are slightly older and they don’t understand it. And there is probably a universe of people who have serious concerns about their privacy and security. That may be preventing them from adopting it. I think there is an ecosystem of reasons, and I think there is probably more that could be done for those communities that have access to get it.

The National Telecommunications & Information Administration asked for input recently on how better to hand out broadband stimulus money. Any thoughts?

I’m not sure I have been here long enough to suggest to NTIA how to do its job better. To its credit, I think NTIA has been very deliberate in listening to the feedback it has gotten.

There is no magic formula to making sure you invest limited resources in programs and initiatives that are working. There is no magic formula when you work in government because there is clearly always a ton of need and an insufficient amount of resources. But NTIA is collecting the kind of information it needs to make some thoughtful decisions—hopefully ones that will enable additional investment capital, which is more likely than not going to end up coming from the private sector, to leverage on top of that.

How does your cable background help you with this job?

For years, the Internet and technology were perceived of as a platform for tension and conflict between industries. When I was at the RIAA, the sense was that there was no common ground between service providers, regardless of the technology they were using, and content companies. And yet, as time has progressed, you see what an interconnected ecosystem technology and broadband is, and that everyone really does have a vested interest in figuring out how to create an environment in which consumers can get access to that dynamic, engaging content, legally in a safe environment.
Those are shared common goals. [Some people] say that whatever the issue, you can’t find common ground or there aren’t ways to serve the needs and desires of the consumer and also ensure that you’ve got industries that are continuing to invest and grow. I don’t buy into that. I think history has shown that. It may take longer, sometimes, than people want. But at the end of the day, there is a mutually shared view, and path, to going where everybody wants to go, which I think we are on. I think we have made a lot of progress in the past five or six years.

I used to travel and not care much about whether the hotel I was staying at had a broadband connection or Wi-Fi. Now, I base hotel decisions in part on whether I have access to the Internet, whether that is to check news or watch something on Hulu, or see what happened in the Colts-Patriots game.

What kind of speeds will be necessary to handle all of those educational and health applications?

I think that is where the $350 billion figure comes from. That is the top line, where you create an efficient system for delivering a real-time telemedicine consult over a broadband connection. If you multiply that out across the country, that is where that $350 billion figure comes from.

At the end of the day, you need to make sure that you are not leaving anybody behind. [We could] end up in a situation in which we just continue to provide more and more opportunities for those who are already on and don’t solve the problem for those who aren’t on. [If that happens], I think that as FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski alluded to, it is just going to exacerbate things like the digital divide, whether you define that in terms of communities of color or anybody who happens to not be connected.

You need to make sure you get everybody into the game, and then also ensure that you have in place the right kind of policy and regulatory frameworks so you continue to have the investment you need. I would be surprised if the $343 billion gap is going to be filled even in small part by federal investment.

Do you have any confidence that it will come from the private sector?

I think there have already been billions invested by private industry to build out the network. I don’t think we would be where we are today, with 90% of the population.

Sorry, I meant the broadband stimulus grant/loan program.

The reality is that government oftentimes looks at places where it feels, for whatever reason, that the market has not achieved what folks might have hoped it would in that area. So if you’ve got really, really rural areas with no connection, it probably does make sense that that should be where the initial emphasis of the $7 billion goes, but I don’t think that means companies aren’t going to continue to invest. I just think we need to make sure we have an environment in which that makes sense.

It took something like 55 years for automobiles to get to 25% of the population, and more than 40 years for electricity. In less than a decade, we have managed to get broadband availability to 90% of the population. That is a pretty impressive track record. Let’s just hope those trends continue.

E-mail comments to