Celebrating a Fifth O’Planniversary

Government actions fit into five buckets: 1) responding to a crisis (9/11, Katrina); 2) delivering on recent campaign promises (Reagan, Bush tax cuts); 3) routine operations, generally responding to petitioning bureaucratic or judicial actions; 4) long debated issues that reach a critical juncture and are, momentarily, resolved (Selma and the Voting Rights Act, the Affordable Care Act, last month’s Federal Communications Commission reclassification decision); and 5) small group charged with evaluating strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats related to a mission, and successfully building a path and political capital for achieving the mission.

The National Broadband Plan at 5: looking back and, more importantly, looking forward

The fourth is rare, and therefore historic. The fifth is seen only slightly more than unicorns. Yet, this week we will see examples of both playing out. Of course, most media attention will focus on the Congressional hearings on the FCC’s recent reclassification decision. But there will also be several events commemorating the fifth anniversary of the National Broadband Plan. The first, on Tuesday, will focus on the impact of the plan on anchor institutions. The second, sponsored by Georgetown, will consider the wide range of issues covered by the Plan, looking back but, more importantly, looking forward to the agenda ahead.

This is not to suggest that the Open Internet and the Plan were in conflict. Quite the opposite. Both reflect how the government and public believe the Internet has a fundamental importance to the economy and society and are grappling with how to protect long-standing principles of equity, diversity, and innovation, among others, when the economic and technological sub-structure shifts. (Ironically, both also produced 400 page documents. Reasonable minds can differ on which is more fun to read, but the Plan footnotes were definitely more amusing.)

The Open Internet and the National Broadband Plan are not in conflict: both reflect how the government and public are grappling with how to protect long-standing principles of equity, diversity, and innovation.

Still, the two demonstrate how different missions require different processes. In 2009, the new Chairman of the FCC, in his first speech, set out a path for resolving the already decade-old debate on the Open Internet, and spent the lion’s share of his Chairmanship seeking to do so. A Court’s rejection of his approach forced the current Chairman to similarly allocate huge time and capital to the issue. The debate has often been heated and divisive, generating massive publicity. In that light, Congress has the right, if not the obligation, to hold hearings.

The Plan, by contrast, did not generate that kind of publicity. It wasn’t that we avoided controversy; from incentive auctions, to set-top boxes, to our proposal for the D block, in every area, we created controversy. We also encouraged public input (to the point of a leading public interest advocate crying “uncle” and requesting we stop asking for input.) But the input was structured first, to gather data, to build on that to set out potential paths for action, and then make proposals. Those proposals did not fit into a simple political narrative and often involved strange coalitions. With so much in play, it was difficult for any party to throw all its capital into one issue, resulting in a different kind of debate.

Nor did the Plan generate Congressional hearings, though it did catalyze the one piece of communications legislation passed in recent years; legislation authorizing incentive auctions and setting up a national public safety network. (One can see the strange bedfellows nature of the enterprise by observing that the biggest stumbling block to the legislation was House Republican early support of the Plan’s recommendation to auction the D block. Still, in my old-fashioned sense of how compromise in D.C. should work, an incentive auction is worth a D block.)

For each of the core four strategies -- driving fiber deeper in the network; using spectrum more efficiently; getting everyone on; and using broadband to improve delivery of public goods and services -- there has been progress, problems and paths still untraveled.

For each of the core four strategies -- driving fiber deeper in the network; using spectrum more efficiently; getting everyone on; and using broadband to improve delivery of public goods and services -- there has been progress, problems and paths still untraveled.

For driving fiber deeper, we made a number of proposals. It turned out that far more important than the answers we gave, was the question we asked: how do we drive private sector investment to create ubiquitous, affordable, abundant bandwidth? We were the first to note that at higher speeds -- speeds likely to be required for mass-market uses in the future -- most Americans, would not have a choice of providers, a fact largely ignored by Commission leadership for several years but more recently cited by President Obama and Chairman Wheeler. Some of our proposals on reducing federal and state constraints on deployment have recently been embraced as well. Other proposals helped improve connectivity to critical anchor institutions.

Still, we were missing a piece to change the difficult economics. Fortunately, our discussions with Google provided that piece. Google Fiber did two critical things our proposals could not. First, it gave cities incentives to reconsider their policies that discouraged deployment. Second, it disrupted the market by forcing incumbents providers to move from a strategy of harvesting to a “Game of Gigs.” Many questions remain for policy makers for a deployment agenda, but the landscape provides opportunities we could only dream of in 2010.

Our spectrum proposals involved three big ideas; moving spectrum from no or low value uses to higher value uses; using market forces, where possible, to drive that movement; and a multi-prong strategy of licensed, unlicensed and shared spectrum. It lead to big changes, including the AWS-3 auction; the telecommunications legislation noted above authorizing the Incentive Auction -- an auction one broadcaster denounced as the equivalent of the Bataan Death March but now embraced by many broadcasters -- and the movement of spectrum from zero or low use to potentially transformative uses. Here too, the progress has shifted, but not reduced the importance of, policy questions, such as on implementing sharing regimes and moving government spectrum to higher uses, among others.

With the third strategy, getting everyone on, we proposed a number of actions, but again, the conversations we had were more important than the answers we gave, particularly with the cable industry. One outgrowth was the Comcast Internet Essentials program, the largest national adoption program.

But while there are some successes, I think, as noted on the first anniversary of the Plan, adoption was my greatest shortfall. We understood adoption was critical and needed more creatively in addressing it. I do not want to take anything away from private efforts, but I fear that some in government believed this is a problem acts of charity can address. It isn’t. Fortunately, it is now back on the government agenda, with Commissioner Clyburn setting out a framework for Lifeline reform. That is a critical step, but not the only necessary one, and, like the other strategies, policy makers need to consider a number of changes in the landscape when considering solutions.

The fourth strategy involves using the platform to improve the delivery of public goods and services. While there have been a number of unheralded advances, the more important point is we have just begun to see the opportunities to improve health care, education, public safety, job training, energy use, among other public services, through the use of data and networks. This strategy will merge with what we might think of as the Civic Internet of Things (with similar technology but a different purpose and market structure than the Industrial Internet of Things.) The next Administration will have an extraordinary opportunity to build on the foundation suggested by the Plan and improved by a number of efforts within this Administration. As with the other strategies, the landscape has shifted and those opportunities ought to be developed in light of those changes.

As we finished the work on the plan, someone suggested we call it the O’Plan, a simultaneous nod to the President and the parades that day we pretended were in our honor. But we all recognized the Plan was never really finished, beginning the implementation section with the single most important sentence in the 400 pages and the reason for this week’s meetings: “This plan is in Beta and always will be.”

One can hope that will not be the case with the FCC’s 4th effort to settle the jurisdictional foundation for Open Internet rules. But whatever the fate of the February order, we should want government to be able to both address big, divisive issues, while not losing sight of the opportunities for progress that comes from quieter, more systemic, discussions. (In the development of the Plan, it did; in initial implementation, the FCC’s history is problematic.) In our sessions this week, we won’t be debating policies so much as focusing on lessons learned over the last five years and insights for agenda setting for the next five. We want to step back, as we did that summer of 2009, and ask first, what is going on in the real world as to broadband deployment, adoption and uses, that should inform how we proceed to use the opportunities broadband presents to drive economic growth and social progress? We hope we can suggest how the next Administration can use a similar approach to address the opportunities and threats of the decade ahead.

The Plan is in Beta and always will be

We hope you can join us.

Blair Levin oversaw the development of a National Broadband Plan. He is a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institute's Metropolitan Policy Program. Levin serves as the executive director of Gig.U: The Next Generation Network Innovation Project, an initiative of three dozen leading research university communities seeking to support educational and economic development by accelerating the deployment of next generation networks.

By Blair Levin.