Blair Levin on Broadband: “To Complete the Transition to the Digital Age, Abandon Yesterday’s Logic”

by mmtcbbsj on February 10, 2011

At MMTC’s Broadband and Social Justice Summit in January, Blair Levin delivered some insightful words on the best way to complete the transition to the digital age. His remarks are below.

The topic: how to complete the transition to the digital age.

Six words suffice: Abandon yesterday’s logic; quickly and passionately.

Let me explain.

Progress requires vision. In 1996, Congress handed the FCC a broad mandate — 110 rulemakings — and tight timetables. Because there was a clear vision — competition — the Commission could move quickly, complete all its rulemakings on time, with unanimous votes.

There were many obstacles, including legislative ambiguity, limited resources, and the inherent incentive of companies to push harder to keep barriers in markets they dominated than for rules to ease entry into markets they didn’t.

We didn’t always get it right. But the Commission did its job; honorably and effectively. The Broadband Plan also lays out a clear vision to move us to digital.

Our country needs a ubiquitous, diverse and, through competitive forces, constantly improving broadband ecosystem; one composed of networks, applications, devices and above all, people who know how to use and improve it.

Why do we need it?

Because that ecosystem has become the commons of collaboration, driving productivity growth and job creation in our knowledge-based economy and serving as the town square for our civil society. An ecosystem with those attributes is the fundamental tool for creating the economy and society we want. Having such an ecosystem does not assure our country’s success.

Not having it, however, guarantees failure.

As in 1996, there should be a robust debate about the details of achieving that vision. But unlike 1996, where a bipartisan consensus supported the competitive vision, there is not a consensus for the Plan’s vision. In fact, the dominant vision is quite different. That vision is that our primary goal should be to increase the speed of the wire line network to the most rural of residents.

This vision will lead our country into a dead end.

It calls to mind the admonition of the business visionary Peter Drucker: “The danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence. It is to act with yesterday’s logic.” That dominant vision, and our policies today, are based on yesterday’s logic and yesterday’s realities, particularly that of voice service.

In yesterday’s phone world, there was a primary goal; you had service or you didn’t. In the broadband world, value creation depends on the relationship between the elements of the ecosystem.

How would it profit us to have high speeds if our devices are slow, our applications useless and our users illiterate?

Which demonstrates the second problem; the knee-jerk focus on speed.

Speed is only an input; what matters is the output–the use. In the voice world, it was logical to care about the input — availability. As a society we didn’t care about whether people actually used the phone. In the broadband world, use is what matters most.

During the Plan’s 30-plus workshops, we continually heard that while we need to increase speeds in strategic areas, the biggest untapped promise concerns applications. Our country can benefit enormously if we take advantage of new ways of delivering education, health care, public safety, job training and other critical public services; and if people actually use broadband to take advantage of those services.

A third error is focusing on wire line services, another legacy of the mindset of yesterday’s single network.

Wire line is important but mobile, wireless services will be every bit as important. With smart phones about to out-sell PCs, wireless may be a more important driver of economic growth in the next decade. But yesterday’s logic blinds our policy framework to the risk of insufficient spectrum soon leading to high prices and bad service, costing our economy billions.

There is an urgent need to act and a simple solution with bi-partisan support: allow existing license holders to participate in an auction, freeing up spectrum for new uses.

Yet there is no action, only talk, in part because some incumbents are nervous about having market forces direct the use of spectrum and some others want to tie solving this problem to shifting more support to rural America.

As to rural, it’s important to connect all of it. Ubiquity, both as to geography and as to people, is critical. If you look at how we spend our resources, we overwhelmingly care about geography, not people. Rural should not be, as it effectively is today, the primary recipient of our policy effort.

The same is true for residential. Surveys show about 80% of schools and libraries think their bandwidth is inadequate to serve our kids’ educational needs while 90% of persons are somewhat or very happy with their residential connectivity. And yet we are spending even more today on residential, relative to schools and libraries, than we did in early Internet era.

Reality has changed. But we are doubling down on yesterday’s logic

The dominant vision was well articulated recently in an op-ed in the Des Moines Register. Written by the head of the Iowa Telecom Association, it attacked the Plan’s proposals for reforms.

Well articulated. And wrong.

It attacks the Plan as anti-rural when the plan is the first effort to get broadband to all of rural America. A big problem today is a rural-rural divide caused by our current system. We subsidize some rural carriers to provide a Mercedes quality connection at Corolla prices while providing other rural carriers nothing—effectively telling their subscribers to walk.

The author’s solution — a big shock, I know – is more government subsidies for his wire line clients and nothing to solve the problem of unserved rural areas.

But the most problematic idea is one that sounds great.

After noting that the Plan sets a goal of at least 100 million American homes having access to networks capable of delivering 100 Mbps, he wrote, “It is hard to believe, but the FCC does not believe all Iowans should have access to the same type of broadband speeds.”

It sounds lovely.

But it ignores that the market, not the government, sets the speed most Americans receive. It ignores that providing the same speed to all rural residents requires taxing all current subscribers about $30 a month. This would force tens of millions of low income Americans to drop off the network, hardly the result we should want from a universal service system. Most important, one size fits all thinking in a digital world is a recipe for disaster.

To have a robust, constantly improving broadband service, a service essential to the economic engines of this century, we need some sectors to have speeds far higher than they have today, and higher than it would ever make sense for the government to subsidize to others.

For example, if our research institutions and medical centers are to remain the best in the world, they need world-leading connectivity. So, too, with other institutions and economic sectors that are key to our international competitiveness.

From an economic perspective, what is a more important goal: a 100 Mbps connection to every rural home or a gigabit to every community, for small businesses and institutional users?

The latter is both cheaper and more important. We need a digital transition that serves a strategy of economic growth, not a bumper strip that serves solely stasis.

Yesterday’s logic leads to some extraordinary outcomes. We’ll spend $20,000 a line a year to subsidize a line to a second home but almost nothing to connect unserved homes and to help people who are digitally illiterate.

Actually, its worse.

We assess those unserved and the digitally illiterate homes every month to pay for subsidies for areas and people far better off. What is the economic or moral principle that justifies that? We allocate spectrum based on where the market was 60 years ago, not on where it is today.

We provide educational content over the platform developed by Gutenberg — textbooks — instead of that developed by Bezos and Jobs, even though eBooks are better for education and cheaper.

We provide emergency alerts on a one-way, non-dynamic location ignorant platform that Americans are only occasionally connected to instead of the two-way, dynamic, location aware platform most Americans are next to 24/7, one that would be far more effective in an emergency.

I could go on.

But in short, to complete the transition, we must abandon yesterday’s logic.

As to the last three words; quickly and passionately:

Quickly, because the school child without Internet in the home, probably already disadvantaged, is falling further behind without access to the tool 80% of her classmates use for homework.

Quickly, because the person entering the market today without basic digital skills will go from unemployed to permanently unemployable without such skills.

Quickly, because other countries are acting strategically in ways we are falling behind that will prove costly.

One can have different views of health care reform, but shouldn’t we devote some of the attention we focus on that issue to the fact that in nearly every metric used to measure the adoption of health information technology, the United States ranks in the bottom half among comparable countries; even though such measures could save us a half trillion dollars over 15 years.

Again, I could go on but, in short, quickly, because every day lost in completing this transition is a day of losses; losses that will be lost to us forever.

And passion, because only passion will move us quickly to action.

Our analysis should be cool-heated. Without a passion, however, for the mission of moving our country to the digital platform, we are doomed to endlessly debate the same issues, again and again, without taking the actions we know we must take.

I’ll close by noting our country is having a “Sputnik Moment” moment. In the last two months many, including the President, have described our country as facing a “Sputnik Moment,” where we recognize others have capabilities we need and lack.

According to Google trends, a phrase with no traction between 2003 and November 2010 has shot up in the last two months like, shall we say, a Sputnik rocket.

The discussion of our sputnik moment reminds me, in an odd way, of a scene from the 1981 movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. In Cairo, a crowd surrounds Indiana Jones. A man dressed in black robes takes out a huge sword, and with great swagger and sword brandishing skills confronts Indy.

Dr. Jones takes out a gun and shoots him.

For the man in black and the crowd, it was, shall we say, a Sputnik moment.

The horrific events in Tucson remind us to be mindful of metaphors and media moments involving guns. Nonetheless, because of the movie’s timing, shortly after the 444-day hostage crisis in Tehran, the gun vs. sword scene provided some comfort that we still had a technology edge that would get us out of seemingly impossible situations.

But as parts of the world are now surpassing us, that scene looks different. It is good that we recognize that we need to change, in a world that is rapidly changing. But it is our actions, not our words that matter.

When I think of how we are actually responding to our Sputnik Moment, when I consider how our institutions are actually responding to the agenda for action in the National Broadband Plan, when I consider the dominant vision for broadband, I fear we are now the man with the sword, still with swagger, caught in the past, about to be overcome by those who understand and live by today’s logic.

Thank You.

  • Bill Edmonds

    I think Mr. Levin is right — we need to shift our obsession from speed to one about use.

    The situation now reminds of the early days of personal computers … speed, speed, speed, with the latest, fastest chips getting all the attention. Meanwhile, the software was inscrutable and of negligible value to most of us.

    It took years for the software to catch up (thanks, Macintosh, for the visual!) and only in recent years, with development of the Web, has the promise of personal computing come to fruition.

    It took 30 years.

    We are at a new threshold now, with high-speed connectivity and wireless, again with great promise, but we need to pick up the pace in developing this potential, as Mr. Levin advises, “quickly and passionately.”

  • John_Q_Public

    This is a call to action. A better case for shifting our collective focus to the practical issues of adopting and using broadband to better our lives and our economy has yet to be made. Blair should be commended for his eloquent and persuasive analysis of the next phase of evolution in the broadband ecosystem.

  • DianneG

    Changing perception and focus to match the needs and reality of today is so important for policy reform. Agencies most times take a reactive approach to the dilemmas, but as Blair has strongly urged, the time is now to change policy and perception to match the needs of today with the solutions of today. Yesterday’s logic and solutions simply won’t do.

  • S. Witter

    “Abandon yesterday’s logic; quickly and passionately.” — This is fantastic advice. I applaud Mr. Levin for making such a bold statement and calling policymakers to act in a way that will benefit all Americans, particularly low-income and minority citizens who remain on the wrong side of the digital divide.

  • Lucybear

    Fancy words such as “quickly and passionately” don’t get the job done when it comes to including minorities in the National Broadband Plan. The only way the NBP gets done is through the spectrum that is held by broadcast TV owners, namely LPTV owners. Guess what, there is the largest concentration of minority ownership among LPTV broadcasters. Broadcasters can implement the NBP faster and with less senseless fighting than any other group. How many Full Power TV stations will embrace the NBP, my guess is less than 10%, which again leaves Low Power TV as the most likely source of spectrum. It is time to start asking the question, How does the FCC plan to treat LPTV station owners.

  • Guest

    I really like this message. I hope the Commission take Mr. Levin’s advice to heart.

  • BBConnection

    As it was alluded to by President Obama during the SOTU, we need to re-invent and re-build our technology for us to be competitive in this digital age. With countries like China and India taking over the global market, I agree with Mr. Levin that we have to quickly abandon yesterday’s logic to meet up with the competition.

  • Common Sense

    You can never move forward…stuck in the past!

  • Lucy

    Blair Levin speaks the truth. This message is so inspirational.

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