The man behind the National Broadband Plan (Q&A)

Blair Levin, who led the government's efforts to create a blueprint for ubiquitous broadband access, discusses the plan and his frustrations at the slow pace of implementing it.

Remember the National Broadband Plan?

Blair Levin, former executive director of the National Broadband Plan, a report that was presented to Congress in March and was supposed to serve as a blueprint for policymakers to bring ubiquitous access for broadband to all Americans, does.

Blair Levin, the former executive director of the National Broadband Plan. FCC

Levin, who had served as former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt's chief of staff in the 1990s, returned to the FCC temporarily last year to head up the National Broadband Plan team. And after months of 80-hour work weeks, Levin and his team of 70 staffers delivered the 360-page document to Congress in mid-March.

Six months later, Levin is now a fellow at the Aspen Institute, writing and analyzing policy options for implementing the National Broadband Plan. And the report he worked so tirelessly on is in the hands of the FCC, which some critics complain is too distracted by other issues to get down to business.

CNET recently caught up with Levin by phone to get his thoughts on how he thinks things are shaping up for the implementation of the National Broadband Plan. Below is an edited excerpt from the conversation.

What do you think you achieved with the National Broadband Plan?
There was a broad consensus that the plan was a great agenda for the country. That is unusual in Washington these days, so it shouldn't be underestimated. But specifically, I think there were three things the plan did well.

First, there was a real effort to analyze data. So much of the debate up to the National Broadband Plan had not been based on actual data. Something as simple and basic as how many homes don't have broadband? How much would it cost to get those homes broadband?

I'm sure we didn't get a 100 percent of this right in our analysis, but I think it's the best data that's available to date. At least now we have some pretty good numbers on which to base the debate.

The second thing is that we got the agenda right. The issues we identified were not necessarily what we thought about going into this. For example, spectrum issues, rights of way and applications for public service. These were examples of things addressed in the plan that we also had broad support for.

The third thing we got right was to focus on adoption. There was a lot of actual data on this missing initially. And what we discovered when we went out there is that 90 percent of people had broadband available to them, but a much smaller percentage actually were subscribing to service.

Affordability was a factor for some people. But the larger issue has to do with relevance. Even though there are a lot of low-income people who may not be able to afford multi-channel video (cable TV), there is still a high proportion of people subscribing to the service. And people are not leaving in huge numbers. The big difference between TV and broadband is that to watch TV, you don't have to be literate. The same is true of phone service. You don't need to be literate to use a cell phone, so penetration of those services is higher.

But to use broadband for things, such as getting access to public services, health care, job training, etc., a basic level of literacy is necessary. It requires a skill set. And teaching people those skills is a serious effort. So price is a piece of it, but literacy and relevance are also aspects too.

We found when we went out into communities that there was already a lot of activity already at the local and community level. Some of it works and some of it doesn't. But we also realized that what works in one community doesn't work in another. For example, broadband adoption among senior citizens is different from adoption among 30-year-olds.

In collecting all this data and then analyzing it, what did you learn that surprised you the most?
The most interesting data point is that the gap between private investment and what's needed to accomplish the goals of the report is relatively small. In other words, we can solve about 90 percent of the broadband access problem for a relatively small amount of money, like around $10 billion. Of course, if you tried to solve 100 percent of the problem, it would be more difficult and more expensive. That's one of the things I've learned in business. You can wait around to solve a 100 percent of the problem perfectly, or you can solve most of the problem as quickly and cheaply as you can. You might make some mistakes, but you get a lot more accomplished.

You mentioned some of the things that you think your team did well in drafting the National Broadband Plan. What could you have done better?
Something I think we didn't do as well as I wished we had is explaining why the broadband platform is so important to our economy and our society. We may have spent too much time talking about specific proposals and maybe not enough time talking about why it's important. One of the most widely reported ideas from the report was the 100 Mbps broadband service to 100 million homes by 2020. That's a big idea and a big goal, and we should have been saying that is an important goal not just for the speed, but for the applications it would allow and how those applications will affect our economy. It's not enough to just talk about the benefits of broadband generically, but rather what it represents to the economy.

Let me share this analogy with you. It took 40 years after electricity was introduced for more than 50 percent of U.S. factories to start using it. They didn't see the relevance right away. They were already using water power, and they built their factories vertically to accommodate the shafts. With electricity they could use motors and place them anywhere. Henry Ford showed you could build the factory horizontally. This is something you couldn't do before. And it allowed companies to build cars and other appliances in an assembly line. So in American industry, electricity allowed companies to rethink design. Without it, the U.S. never would have become the industrial power house it had become in the turn of the last century.

Now, think about broadband and what it could do for education. People talk a lot about eReaders replacing text books. But is it enough to move to a digital platform for the sake of having a PDF of the text shown digitally on an eReader? With a ubiquitous wireless broadband network you can do so much more with that eReader. Now students could Skype a tutor or teacher if they're reading something they don't understand. Teachers could know who did the reading assignment and who didn't. It would also give teachers the ability to see where students are struggling. And it allows different students to learn in different ways. I have three kids and two of them learn much better by seeing. They don't learn as well just by reading something. So now we've made the whole experience better.

We also need to talk about the hard choices that we need to make as a society. Too often we just say broadband is great, and people automatically think everyone wins.

So what are some of these hard choices you think need to be made to achieve the National Broadband Plan goals?
The Universal Service Fund is a great example. The concept is a good one, but the way it's currently funded and the way money is allocated is not achieving the ultimate goal. If you fund USF the way it should be funded, then broadband gets everywhere. But individual companies that are currently given profit guarantees from the government won't get those guarantees anymore.

Specifically, we're spending money on subsidizing wireless service in certain places where there are already voice providers. So we need to rewrite the rules. Times have changed, and the rules I helped write in the 1990s may not be applicable now. But you just have to be tough-minded about some of these decisions. Competition is great, but we can't afford everything. So we have to shift funds to ensure we accomplish our main goal, which is getting service everywhere. That is a hard choice. And I think the FCC needs to be clear about those types of choices.

Another example is that if we say we want spectrum allocated in markets that create new services and offer more choice, then giving preference to companies that have historically been successful in these auctions may not be the best answer. So we may want to structure the auctions differently.

Some critics have said that the debate over Net neutrality and uncertainty over whether the FCC has authority to do much of anything following the Comcast federal appeal's court decision has gotten in the way of addressing the National Broadband agenda. What do you think?
There's no question the commission turned its attention toward dealing with what they should do following the Comcast decision. I don't think anyone can dispute that it has hurt the implementation of the National Broadband Plan. I'm a little biased here, but I think that is very unfortunate. On the other hand, there a many talented people at the FCC working on this and they are getting things done. I have great faith that they can move down many roads at once. They're working on a more detailed description on spectrum, reforming the Universal Service Fund and eRate, as well as addressing issues with public safety and rural health care.

But do all of us who worked on the plan wish things were moving faster? That's easy for us to say. Many of us aren't there anymore. I left the commission in May. The chairman is welcome to ask my advice confidentially anytime. I'm available, but I'm not there day to day. And one has to understand that there are processes in government.

The FCC is proposing reclassifying broadband traffic to clear up any uncertainty of its authority after the Comcast decision. And other people are calling for Congress to rewrite some of the Telecommunications Act to make the FCC's regulatory role clearer. Do you think that the FCC can move forward with the National Broadband Plan before any of this is actually done?
The Comcast decision raises significant issues with regard to the commission's ancillary jurisdiction. I haven't examined this all that closely, but I think there are some things it can do without changing the statute to clear some of this up. And it would be great if Congress passed a law granting the FCC the authority to conduct incentive spectrum auctions, for example.

I think eventually Congress is going to have to do something. It was in the same situation in the 1990s. And Congress passed the 1996 Act. The same thing will happen as we move from voice centric communications to IP centric communications.

Whether this needs to happen this year is still a question. I think there is a lot of good stuff that can be done to advance the National Broadband Plan that doesn't require any action from Congress.