The National Broadband Plan at 10: What’s Next?



Thursday, March 19, 2020

Digital Beat

The National Broadband Plan at 10: What’s Next?

Blair Levin
       Blair Levin

Eleven years ago Congress instructed the Federal Communications Commission to develop a national broadband plan to ensure that all Americans had affordable access to broadband and that America utilized broadband to advance a number of national purposes, including health care, education, job training, public safety, and economic growth. Ten years ago this week, the team delivered that plan. On the occasion of the anniversary, team alumni -- along with Benton and a number of other public interest groups -- had planned to get together to discuss what should be the agenda for a plan for the next decade and what lessons from the plan, and the process that created it, would be helpful as we look toward the future. Due to the coronavirus -- a pandemic that is demonstrating both the stengths and weaknesses of U.S. broadband -- that event has been postponed. But over the coming days and weeks, we will be publishing notes from a number of people who were scheduled to speak at the event.

Eleven years ago Congress asked for a National Broadband Plan.

Ten years ago, we delivered it.

If Congress were to ask for such a plan for the next decade, what would it contain?  What did we learn from doing the 2010 Plan that would be useful for a team doing one in 2021 to know?

I will address those questions[i] by discussing four key differences between then and now, delineating three key learnings, and closing with some eternal truths that animated our effort and should animate the next as well as making one quick suggestion relating to broadband in time of the coronavirus.

By way of background, the 2010 National Broadband Plan addressed three primary questions:

  • How to get networks everywhere;
  • How to get everyone on; and
  • How to use the platform to improve the delivery of public services and create improved public goods.

Those questions remain relevant, but the inquiries today would be much broader, due to a number of changes noted below.

Changes Affecting the Writing of a New Plan

First, we wrote our plan in an environment in which all thought of broadband as being largely positive.  As reflected in the authorizing legislation, Congress wanted more broadband access and adoption, and for utilization to expand. As a result, our plan was more operational than regulatory. While we raised some questions of potential downsides, we largely focused on incentives to do, rather than constraints on doing.[ii]

But any plan done today would be much more regulatory, regardless of the partisan leanings of whoever does it. The upside of using broadband as the commons of information and collaboration is greater than ever but the downside is also much better understood. In that light, the essential reading for anyone doing a plan today would be Harold Feld’s “The Case for the Digital Platform Act: Market Structure and Regulation of Digital Platforms”, a comprehensive framework for thinking about the scope of issues we now face.[iii]

Second, our plan was very domestic. Other than trying to learn from what other countries—such as South Korea—had done to facilitate improving broadband in their own country, we did not focus on the international ecosystem.

It wasn’t just US geo-narcissism. In those days, one could reasonably believe that the United States was the internet and that while the arc of internet was long, it would continue to bend toward the United States. After all, nearly all the applications that dominated usage around the world came from us. We dominated the international forums that would set the stage for future developments. Others looked to us for leadership in regulation.

The facts have changed.

Any plan now must acknowledge the international nature of the internet, whether it be the popularity of non-US based applications, the impact of regulatory efforts of other jurisdictions, such as the European Union’s privacy law, the impact on national security of the limited number of network equipment manufacturers on issues such as cybersecurity, the potential of the bifurcation of the internet between the Chinese and American versions, among others.

Third, we wrote the plan in a less polarized atmosphere. We hired experts with diverse views. We tested ideas along a broad spectrum, even when we ourselves had significant concerns about their efficacy. Above all, we were allowed to ask questions and collect and analyze data before we reached our conclusions.

It would be much more difficult to do so today. One element of polarized politics is that issues have to be framed in ways that communicate that ‘we have always been right and the other side has always been wrong.’[iv]  While nothing in DC is without politics,[v]  it is difficult, if not impossible, to do a good job analyzing data, if one has to make that data conform to a pre-existing political frame. While I had to spend some time creating a space to do rigorous analytic work, the next person with that job will have to spend more time and political capital addressing that challenge.

Fourth, and perhaps most significantly, there have been significant changes related to the three questions. For each of the three questions noted above, the environment has changed significantly.

On access, there is progress but the job is not finished.  In a positive trend, the average download speed for wired broadband in the United States has gone from 4.1M to 96.25M,[vi] with the FCC has appropriately increasing the metric for what constitutes broadband several times.[vii]   We have successfully moved the Universal Service Fund from subsidizing voice to subsidizing broadband[viii] and we have also successfully upgraded our nations’ K-12 classrooms. Further, there are a number of technological developments, including low-earth orbiting satellites and white spaces, and market developments, such as electric co-ops moving to broadband, that hold the promise for closing the access gap. Unfortunately, however, there are still millions of Americans without access and the FCC’s data collection efforts have resulted in a high-level of uncertainty about the true state of access. Criticism of the FCC on this score is universal, resulting in one of the only bi-partisan pieces of legislation in the recent Congress. One of the primary jobs of the next plan would be to develop an accurate map of broadband in America and adjust the universal service program and/or make recommendations about a one-time infrastructure infusion based on real data.[ix] Hopefully, Carol Mattey, who contributed so much to the transition of universal service from voice to broadband, will be able to publish her thoughts in this Benton series on the access agenda from here.

On adoption, we have made some progress but there is still significant work to be done and we are significantly underinvesting in this area.  Here, too, there have been some positive developments, such as the 2016 reform of Lifeline. Unfortunately, as we will see with greater clarity during the current crisis, we are still far from completing the job. We have about three times as many Americans who have access but have not adopted than we do Americans who do not have access, but have devoted far fewer resources to closing that gap. There is a vigorous, and useful, debate about whether the primary cause is affordability, literacy or relevance. No doubt all contribute to the problems that remain. John Horrigan, the nation’s leading authority on adoption, has already laid out his thoughts on what a decade of lessons on increasing home adoption has taught us and what the next plan should understand as a starting point for its agenda.

Utilization constitutes the hidden digital divide. From the perspective of 2030[x], I think the most important divide is that the upside to American society has yet to be realized.[xi]  Since the plan, there have been a number of great new applications in education, health care, public safety, public health and many other areas that we addressed in the second half of the plan.[xii]  The opportunities to use new technologies, such as augmented and virtual reality, two-way ultra-high definition video, and other developments to improve public purpose applications are even greater today, due to the increased bandwidth described above. We have not, however, seen the kind of improvements in outcomes in those areas that one would have hoped would result. I could speculate on why,[xiii] but the important point is understanding that divide, and moving the public and private sectors to develop and adopt uses that improve public goods. That is an essential task for the next plan.

The coronavirus crisis is going to shine a bright light on each of these but also has the potential to drive improvements. The crisis will illuminate where we have made progress and where we haven’t. Most of the focus will be on where we have fallen short: communities limited to current satellite offerings and DSL where the short-falls of those technologies became more evident; school systems that had to close but with a significant number of students in non-adopting homes, forced to rely on paper for continuing education; homes with parents working remotely and multiple school children crashing the limited bandwidth, and Monday morning quarter-backing asking why, within a few weeks of the virus being in the United States, we didn’t have a website in which one could put in one’s zip code and immediately learn the status of the infections in the surrounding area, as well as where to be tested and treated.[xiv]

Eventually, we will also come to understand that without the improvements in broadband we have seen, the situation would have been a lot worse. As the author Nassim Taleb wrote in his book Antifragile, “The excess energy released from overreaction to setbacks is what innovates.”

Hopefully, we will see the crisis catalyze that kind of innovation in many broadband based activities and we will have the wisdom to study and scale up the innovations that work. A new plan will hopefully have significant new and relevant data that will inform its proposals.

So those changes lead to a clear, beginning agenda:

  • As to the access and adoption divides, the next plan would have a simple mandate: finish the job, using better data.
  • As to utilization, we need to rethink the national purposes section of the plan, particularly in light of more abundant bandwidth and new technologies, and
  • Apply what we learn during the coronavirus crisis to all three questions.

Lessons in Managing Against Incentives

We learned a lot doing the plan, both on the substance and the process for how to write a plan. I want to note three that require leadership to go against the incentive structure for such initiatives.

First, deadlines are your friend, if used well.  At first blush, any rational person attempting to do something in government, would try to avoid having deadlines. Given the number of actors one has to work with, deadlines can be seen as Mission: Impossible. The plan itself faced ridiculous deadlines. We had a year from February 2009. I was not hired until June. I could not finish hiring the team until early August. The deadlines, however, were a blessing in disguise. They enabled us to hire a particularly great group, as it was clear the project was time-limited. The deadlines enabled us to work harder, forced us to focus better and provided us the means to get others in the Administration to accelerate their input. For example, the timetable gave us improved access to Administration policy personnel[xv] on spectrum[xvi] and to all the relevant Administration related to the National Purposes.

Second, crisis are brought about by the failure to work in the interstices.[xvii]  There is no political pay-off for avoiding them but do it anyway. No one in political activity gets credit for a crisis avoided. Still, from the perspective of a decade later, it is one of the things that one can most look back on with pride. We started with the question of what if we were to do nothing; what would be the biggest problem in a decade? This led us to explore policy options in some seriously unsexy areas that were the broadband equivalent of fixing the pothole before it materializes. It included trying to figure out how to free up spectrum for broadband, provide a framework for allowing telephone companies to accelerate their transition from circuit-switched to IP networks, and transitioning the Universal Service Fund from subsidizing voice services to subsidizing broadband. In each case, we drew a map and the FCC subsequently filled in the details. While there are valid debates about the details of our map and the FCC actions, each process avoided putting the FCC in a position where it had to react to a crisis.

Already one can see issues where the planning would be useful in avoiding crisis in the future. One issue we discussed but did not generate action was reforming the Universal Service Fund contribution factor. In 2010 it was at 15.3%. In the first quarter of 2020, it was 21.2%. This upward trend cannot continue indefinitely. It should be addressed before the system collapses. We also need to address evolving digital divides, including those created by where 5G is likely to be deployed and by the collapse of the economics that supported the cooper phone networks.

Third, private initiatives also won’t garner political points but they can be more effective than policies.  I went into the plan thinking that the output would be a series of policy recommendations. That proved largely to be true but two of the most significant outcomes were private initiatives that emerged from discussions between National Broadband Plan team members and private enterprises. One, Google Fiber, came out of discussions about how we provide incentives for next generation upgrades to gigabit connectivity.[xviii]  The second, Comcast Internet Essentials, emerged from a Comcast executive hearing our adoption expert, John Horrigan, speak about the problems of adoption and deciding his company had to do more. Those efforts, one of which contributed to a 25-fold increase in bandwidth speeds and the other of which added 8 million Americans to those with broadband in their homes, are underappreciated success stories for why more Americans in the face of the coronavirus can work and learn from home. In both cases, the credit goes to the companies, as it should. But both demonstrate the power of a planning process to generate new ideas—and not necessarily government action—that produce better outcomes.

Eternal Truths about Writing a National Broadband Plan for the United States

While things are different than they were a decade ago, many things that animated our effort should animate the next. Here are three.

First, it should be America’s plan, written by America. America has distinct economic, institutional and demographic conditions. Its broadband ecosystem, with several wired connections to most homes, is also distinct. America also has a foundation for innovation without peer. America also has distinct challenges, including its geographic and racial complexities. The plan should reflect those distinct American realities. It should also invite all stakeholders to offer their views on how the plan can reflect the opportunities and challenges those realities reflect.[xix]

Second, the fundamental vision should remain that access to abundant, affordable bandwidth should not constrain economic growth or social progress. That vision is not a specific metric,[xx] but it more accurately describes what will be a constantly evolving goal and that in a global information economy and society, lack of access to abundant, affordable bandwidth would constrain economic and social progress.

Third, the plan should reflect that it is in beta and always will be.[xxi]  As we noted at the beginning of the chapter on implementation, the government should constantly adjust the plan to reflect developments in technologies and markets and evolve it to realize previously unforeseen opportunities and address new challenges. It was true then. And now, with over 100 national broadband plans done since the we did ours, the importance of course correction in implementation is even more clear. In that light, whoever does the next plan should focus more on how to create incentives for implementation and course corrections than I did.

In closing let me quote a popular saying from the early Obama Administration: Plan beats no plan. 

It was true then and it’s is true now.  I certainly hope that an equally talented team gathers in 2021 to do a plan for the next decade. And I hope that team carefully reads the essays on the topic that Benton so graciously agreed to publish.

But even if there is not another National Broadband Plan, Congress should direct a reputable entity to do an evaluation of what the use of broadband during the coronavirus crisis has taught us.  The current stress test on our networks has a lot to teach us about the capabilities and vulnerabilities of our network, the gaps in performance, access and adoption that must be addressed, what innovations in telework, telehealth, and remote learning or in public goods should be scaled up, and other lessons. As soon as the current crisis ebbs, Congress should appoint some group of experts[xxii] to examine those lessons so that we are better prepared for other disruptions and we can better address that core question of how do we make sure that access to abundant and affordable broadband does not constrain economic growth or social progress.

Blair Levin oversaw the development of the FCC’s 2010 National Broadband Plan. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler cited Mr. Levin’s work, noting “no one’s done more to advance broadband expansion and competition through the vision of the National Broadband Plan and Gig.U.” Prior to his work on the National Broadband Plan, Mr. Levin worked as an analyst at Legg Mason and Stifel Nicolaus. Barron’s Magazine noted that in his work, he “has always been on top of developing trends and policy shifts in media and telecommunications … and has proved visionary in getting out in front of many of today’s headline-making events.” From 1993-1997, Levin served as Chief of Staff to FCC Chairman Reed Hundt.  He is currently a policy advisor to New Street Research, an equity research firm, a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institute Metropolitan Policy Project, and recently completed a Global Broadband Plan for Refugees funded by the World Bank and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

[i] One should think of this as 5% of a memo I would write whoever has my job for the next Plan.  But if, like Rabbi Hillel, I had to provide advice that was limited to the time that person was standing on one foot, I would just say, “hire great people.  The rest is commentary.”

[ii] Some, most notably Professor Susan Crawford claimed, without evidence, that the plan did not address net neutrality because it did not want to advocate controversial topics. This is false. First, we did address many controversial topics. Second, Congress didn’t ask us to discuss that topic. Third, FCC Chairman Genachowski planned to resolve that issue before we published the plan, and therefore anything we did would have been redundant. A court decision delayed the Chairman’s timing so that he brought the issue to the full FCC after we published the plan.

[iii] There are a number of others that provide similarly valuable background, including the study commissioned by OFCOM, the Harvard Kennedy School report, and the study from the University of Chicago.

[iv] It is a curious feature of the current FCC that it, much like the President in addressing the current Coronavirus emergency, writes history in a way that reflects this polarized narrative. For example, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a recent speech outlining his C-Band policy said "back in 2017, immediately after I became Chairman, we took stock of where things stood on mid-band spectrum. Unfortunately, the cupboard was virtually bare. There was an incomplete 3.5 GHz initiative that was unlikely to lead to commercial 5G deployments, given problematic rules adopted during the prior Administration. Other than that, the agency had nothing—nothing at all—on the shelf."  Let’s put aside that his statement is false, as the prior Commission took a number of critical steps to free up spectrum eventually auctioned under Pai, other than to note, for example, that all the millimeter wave auctions that Pai has bragged about extensively, had their roots in the 2015 Spectrum Frontier proceeding. The relevant question for the next plan is whether its authors would be pressured to write a similar distorted view of history. After all, what was the point of engaging in such rhetoric?  Did it help Pai get more votes for his proposal at the Commission or support in the Congress?  Will it help him defend his decision in the Courts?  Of course the answer to these questions is no, suggesting the only purpose was to score partisan points. While I view it as a waste of time that undercuts the credibility of the FCC, it tells us something about the political culture of today. By way of contrast, in the nearly 400 pages of the plan, there is a lot of discussion and analysis of trends and data but we did not criticize the past. The plan focused on understanding the facts and building a consensus around both an analysis and a map for moving forward, not telling a partisan narrative. We wanted to make the best possible case for why the policies we advocated for were good for the future. We wanted to get as much support for the policies as possible. Gratuitous (as well as false) political insults are not the way to do that, but they appear to be an essential part of the current environment.

[v] As should be obvious given the two administrations in which I served, I have my own partisan inclinations. The point, however, is not a partisan one but is rather about the difference between analysis and political spin. If one feels the need to make cheap political statements, use twitter. There’s no need to waste time writing a plan. 

[vi] The Wall Street Journal ran an article arguing that millions of  Americans have the opposite problem of what we had in 2010. Instead of not having enough bandwidth, they are paying for bandwidth they don’t need, using “only a fraction of their available bandwidth to watch streaming services’ and that “quality didn’t improve much with higher speeds.” Now is not the moment to critique their analysis except to say that the use case during the Coronavirus probably makes Americans grateful for that extra bandwidth.

[vii] One of the drivers of that upgrade is discussed in footnote 18, but for now, it is interesting to contemplate how all those currently using broadband for remote work and learn would have fared if our country had not increased its download speed to that level.  Some criticized the Plan for not recommending an unbundling policy for cable, the leading network then and now. Unbundling policy, adopted by many countries, is a worthy topic to debate, but had we done so, we would removed all incentives to engage in the upgrade cycle that caused Cable to go from DOSCSIS 3.0 to 3.1 and many telephone related fiber efforts and the communications networks would have collapsed in the current use case.

[viii] There ought to be a robust debate about whether the FCC is doing that transition well but, in this context, the transition has been done, so the job ahead is getting the details right.

[ix]  Over the last few years it has become clear that the FCC has not done a great job of collecting, curating, analyzing and disseminating information. No policy initiative can succeed unless it is based on such information. The first job of any government institution, in my view, is to be a respected, reliable neutral repository of information. We need an entity that is to broadband what the Bureau of Labor Statistics is to relevant labor data. There is no institution in the government today that thinks it is its responsibility to provide such data. I go back and forth on whether we erred in not calling for the creation of such an institution, but if history judges that we should have, I take responsibility. While we made a number of recommendations regarding information collection, I erred in not emphasizing enough the importance of that effort. I later put information gathering front in center in various projects I did, such as the equivalent of a national broadband plan for refugees that I helped write for the World Band and UNHCR. My thinking is in beta and always will be.

[x] I write that sentence sincerely but humbly as I do not actually feel confident that I know what the perspective of next month will be. It is that kind of time.

[xi] While I primarily mean this in the context of outcomes, it is also true that the public does not realize how much better off we are with better broadband. A quick example. Early in the coronavirus crisis, the Washington Post ran a story about how the improved internet will enable scientists to study and develop mitigation tools “with unprecedented speed.” One scientist compared the speed of the scientific advancements, compared to the SARs outbreak earlier this century by saying “imagine walking from Chicago to San Francisco and then imagine taking a plane from Chicago to San Francisco. That’s the kind of difference.”

[xii] The “National Purposes” section of the plan included chapters on Health Care, Education, Energy and the Environment, Economic Opportunity, Government Performance, Civic Engagement and Public Safety.

[xiii] Part of the speculation would be that at the highest level of government, such improvements are not a priority and the information circulating at the top is flawed.  When the President suggests in the serious context of the coronavirus, as he did last week, that telehealth is “fairly new,” ignoring its 50-year history (not to mention the analysis and recommendations in the plan), it is a sign that we are in a political climate that heavily over weights for public relations, not progress.

[xiv] The back and forth on how the White House tried to pretend Google was creating a web site, misdescribing it, and otherwise not using the web to disseminate useful information will be a case study for how not to do it. But I am hopeful there will be case studies that help light a candle for how to do it.

[xv] The plan included the 35-page Spectrum chapter as well as a 60-page Spectrum technical working paper was delivered 14 months after the Obama Administration began. By way of contrast, it took the Trump Administration 21 months to sign an executive order calling upon NTIA to develop a spectrum plan. Was supposed to have plan within 270 days. That July 22, 2019 deadline passed without a plan but in August, NTIA sent a letter to federal agencies requiring them to review their use of two spectrum bands and provide the information to the agency over the next six to nine months. That means that sometime this May, perhaps, the information gathering will be completed, leaving the analysis and writing still to be done. To me, the comparison demonstrates the importance of both an Administration prioritizing and setting deadlines and using those deadlines to drive results. We had to get a one-month extension—long story. 

[xvi] That analysis has led to a number of actions, including: the President’s Executive Memo stating the 500 MHz goal which caused NTIA to look for more spectrum and led to 1695-1710, 1755-80, and 3.5 GHz being on the table; the only communications legislation passed in a recent Congress creating the Incentive Auction, as well as directing an auction of certain bands identified in the plan; liberalization of MSS spectrum (S-band/AWS-4); improvement of WCS spectrum; using 5 GHz for unlicensed uses; and, thanks to the subsequent work of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and the development of a new spectrum shared use regime, first in the 3.5 and potentially useful in other bands.

[xvii] That insight, uttered by a Benedictine Monk and Poet at an antiwar rally in 1972 at the University of California at Santa Cruz, has always been one of my favorite perspectives on history. The plan, at heart, was an effort to work in the interstices.

[xviii] The incumbents initial response to Google Fiber and other efforts, such as what I did after the plan with Gig.U, was that gigabit speeds represented nothing more than “bragging rights” that would be “pointless.”  Within a short time, however, AT&T and CenturyLink started large scale fiber upgrades, Cable accelerated deployment of their own next generation services, and America had a “A Game of Gigs.”  In that game, Google Fiber proved a flawed business model but a policy success, helping drive a 25 fold increase in download speeds from 2009 to 2018, to 96.25Mbps.  

[xix] We viewed the plan process as a three act play with Act 1 devoted to asking questions and seeking data, Act 2 involving debating options, and Act 3 focused on resolving those debates. For the process, we held 36 public workshops and based on those we put out 31 public notices seeking additional comment.  We held nine public hearings outside of DC. These events attracted more than 10,000 participants and about 100,000 pages of comments.  We also held countless meetings with other government officials in the federal, state, and local level.  While the process was time-consuming, the transparency and interactions made the final product much better. I have publicly admitted to several important mistakes I made. What I have never discussed is how many mistakes I, and the team, would have made if we had not engaged in such a process. The reason I haven’t is that they are much too numerous to remember.

[xx] The most quoted chapter in the plan is Chapter 2, which lays out six specific goals, with metrics, that we hoped the country would achieve. I had problems with that chapter but acknowledged that political leadership, particularly in Congress, liked to see goals expressed in that manner. My admittedly subtle way of addressing my concerns was to add a footnote accompanying the text that points out that the point is not to state targets to achieve them. The footnote quotes Shakespeare’s Henry IV in which the Welsh rebel Glendower tells his co-conspirator Hotspur “I can call spirits from the vasty deep.” Hotspur responds, “Why, so can I, or so can any man: But will they come when you do call for them?” Sadly, I am not sure some of those we needed to drive the implementation got the joke.

[xxi] That sentence, “this plan is in beta and always will be” is hands down the best single sentence in the plan. It was also written by the youngest person to work on the plan. I would hope that the next plan is also able to incorporate the wisdom of the aged as well as the insights and energy of the young.

[xxii] Ordinarily that group of experts could be the FCC itself, and certainly there are number of civil servants who would be excellent in this role. Unfortunately, this FCC has not shown itself capable of careful fact finding but rather, as noted in footnote 4, picks a political narrative and invents facts to support that narrative. They would be likely to imitate the President by blaming earlier administrations for any problems, grading themselves highly and evading any responsibility, which actually is not the purpose of the initiative. This exercise requires something like the 9/11 Commission, a group of experts who would be dedicated to getting to the facts and presenting them candidly and thoughtfully to the American public.

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