FCC broadband czar defends national plan

Blair Levin says unreleased broadband plan will meet all Congressional mandates

The chief author of the National Broadband Plan yesterday defended it against recent attacks that it is overly broad, ambitious and unfeasible, and said he is confident the final version set for release March 17 will meet the enormous mandate set by Congress.

"The priorities set [by Congress for the plan] were broad in scope," said Blair Levin, executive director of the Omnibus Broadband Initiative created last year by the Federal Communications Commission. "It may be the broadest mandate any agency has ever gotten from Congress."

While the plan is not finalized, various specific pieces of it have been released by FCC officials in recent days, including one that asks TV broadcasters to voluntarily provide unused airwaves, or spectrum, for wireless broadband Internet uses. The broadcasters would share any profits gained from broadband use on the donated airwaves.

The plan also calls on Congress to spend up to $16 billion to create radio interoperability among emergency responders and suggests that another $9 billion be spent to extend fast Internet connections to rural areas.

In a wide-ranging telephone interview with Computerworld, Levin agreed that the plan is inherently broad, including three U.S. priorities for broadband deployment: bolstering the economic infrastructure of the country; spurring broadband innovation and investment; and bringing access to broadband technology to everyone in the U.S., including the 92 million people in the country now without access to high performance Internet connections.

"Most of the publicity about the plan has focused on getting more spectrum but a major concern of ours is using mobile applications for public safety, healthcare ... and general innovation in the economy," he said.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 directed the FCC to create the broadband plan. The Act required that the plan meet lofty goals of offering a way for all Americans to have access to broadband, and including strategies for using broadband services to advance national priorities such as energy independence and efficiency, education, job creation and entrepreneurial activity.

US. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., authored the Recovery Act's broadband plan and has been the principal sponsor of the Internet Freedom Preservation Act legislation still before Congress.

Markey issued a statement in mid-February saying he was "heartened" after getting a preview of the Broadband Plan.

Levin, a chief of staff of the FCC in the mid-1990s, was named broadband czar in mid-2009 following the installation of Julius Genachowski as FCC chairman. The National Broadband Plan is already being called Genachowski's National Broadband Plan. Input from the five FCC commissioners has been solicited, though approval of it does not require their vote.

Several technology analysts have criticized recently released elements of the plan as too ambitious for Congress to debate prior to the fall elections and during an economic recovery. Some called it technically unfeasible in parts as well.

Levin was diplomatic in responding to the concerns. "I'm glad to have the opportunity to respond. I've read many things about the plan and I start with what the actual legislation calls for. People have been calling for a plan for a long time [but] everybody has different ideas of what that entails. That's what we're working to do."

Without providing details, Levin said the plan will include some "very big things," such as reform of the Universal Service Fund (USF), which was created by the FCC in 1996 mostly to raise funds to improve communications in underserved areas.

"We've known that the USF was not going to serve the country well, but there's been no consensus about what to do about it," he said.

Levin suggested the plan would make broadband Internet service eligible for the USF program, which now focuses on voice telecommunications. He also said the plan will require that Internet service providers offer specific minimum Internet speeds to be eligible for USF monies.

Levin said that net neutrality provisions will not be a part of the Broadband Plan because of a separate FCC Open Internet Initiative. In turn, any legislative recommendations on net neutrality from the Open Internet Initiative will probably be considered by Congress in the Internet Freedom Preservation legislation and related bills. Overall, the National Broadband Plan is not chiefly focused on getting Congress to pass new laws, Levin argued.

"The bulk of the recommendations will be to the FCC, the next largest group [will go] to the executive branch for health care, energy and jobs," he said. "And a third set, a smaller set, will go to Congress."

He said Congress won't be asked to pass any single bill "because it wouldn't make any sense." The FCC has not commented on the fate any broadband measures will face in Congress for funding or otherwise, noting that the plan is a congressional mandate.

On the specific recommendation that TV broadcasters be asked to voluntarily offer unused spectrum for Internet uses, Levin said he heard from "some" TV broadcasters that are interested. Critics, however, believe broadcasters generally will be cold to the idea.

Levin said some broadcasters are already engaging in channel sharing, which frees up some spectrum that is desperately needed to support new and coming mobile data applications.

Genachowski has suggested a future technology that some call "cognitive radio" could help users find available unused spectrum, and Levin said it is important to stimulate interest in new technologies that free up spectrum.

It can take up to 13 years for a specific spectrum usage reform to make its way through the regulatory process, he noted. "What we know for certain is that if we don't start now, we could have a very big problem in the future," Levin said.

Levin wouldn't comment on some calls for the Broadband Plan to include a recommendation that Congress stop using funds raised from spectrum auctions to help pay off the national debt, and use them instead for broadband expansion efforts. FCC observers have noted noted, though, that as FCC chief of staff, Levin had unsuccessfully backed such plans.

Levin did note that the National Broadband Plan could directly affect consumer Internet users, citing consumer protections that might emerge.

"Maybe the first thing the consumer will notice is that hopefully this gives them transparency into [their Internet] speed and performance. How to best do that, there are a number of different ways. But there will be useful tools as things play out," he said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, send e-mail to mhamblen@computerworld.com or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed .

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