Policy

Q&A: Blair Levin Weighs In

6/07/2010 6:30 AM Eastern

In his first extensive interview since leaving the Federal
Communications Commission earlier this month, the
agency’s former chief broadband adviser, Blair Levin
— now ensconced as a senior fellow at the Aspen Institute
think tank in Washington — talked with Multichannel News
Washington bureau chief John Eggerton about reclassifying
broadband under Title II, cable rates, criticism of the
plan and much more.

MCN: Title II is the issue du jour. What do you
think the FCC should do about clarifying its
authority over broadband?

Blair Levin:
It reminds me a little bit of the
Woody Allen line about mankind being at a
crossroads. One path leads to complete hopelessness
and despair, the other to utter annihilation.
Let’s hope we have the wisdom to
choose correctly.

When you listen to the two sides talk about
it, you get this very apocalyptic sense. I am
not an expert and the broadband plan very
consciously did not focus on that issue. Our
focus was to address what Congress asked us
to address, which was, how do we solve certain
problems: getting broadband to everyone; getting higher
levels to adopt; and making sure that we accelerate the movement
of the economy to broadband to generate greater economic
growth, productivity growth, as well as to make sure
that certain sectors dominated by the public sector — education,
health care, public safety — utilize broadband more
productively.

Those are things that lend themselves to a planning task, but
they are not the stuff of deep legal analysis. We felt that was for
other people to deal with.

MCN: But in the interim, if the classification implicates Universal
Service Fund migration to broadband or privacy issues,
doesn’t the FCC have to do something?

BL: I think things have to be done. It is not my place to opine
on the best way to do it. I certainly have a great amount of personal
sympathy for [FCC] chairman [Julius] Genachowski. I
know that some folks have said that his decision [to propose
reclassifying some aspects of broadband Internet access under
some of Title II common-carrier regulations] created uncertainty.

In truth, the [BitTorrent-Comcast] court case [regarding network
management of peer-to-peer file sharing] created tremendous
uncertainty. And whatever path [Genachowski] and the
commission choose will have a level of uncertainty, because
there will be appeals to the court and to Congress, and there
are political changes. I think it is an unfortunate diversion from
the more important long-term task. But I recognize that, in the
short-term, that is where people will be focused, and that is unfortunate.

MCN: Putting on your financial analyst’s hat, what does Wall
Street really want, regulatory certainty or the certainty of no
regulation?

BL: I am always amused when people say that Wall Street
wants certainty. Wall Street is fundamentally about betting
on probabilities. Wall Street is very comfortable with uncertainty.
It just needs ways to measure that uncertainty. It is certainly
true that it prefers to mitigate uncertainties, particularly
political ones.

But I think it is a mistake to think that anything that the commission
were to do would give it the kind of certainty that some
people appear to be saying is required for investment.
I think if you look at the real numbers on
investment, there are lots of things that affect it.
On the simplest level, it is always some combination
of fear and greed.

But the levels of capital investment were very
high in the mid to late 1990s. There were certainly
levels of regulatory uncertainty. But there were
also positive openings, in my view, in terms of
regulation, in terms of new opportunities. There
was also a certain element of competition that in
part had to do with policy and, in part, a maturity
in the market.

MCN: You have said that there is an anger
over cable bills that reminded you of
the run-up to the Cable Act and that the
market or government would likely have to respond. Are
cable prices too high, or is the product’s value underappreciated?

BL: There is a lot of interesting work by behavioral economists
that might cast insight into that. I don’t really have
a strong view about that. But what I do think it ref lects,
and it is good news for cable, is that it has succeeded [with]
what is a very powerful platform that does three things that
Americans really want on a universal basis: They want to
have a lot of television; they want to have very robust data
communications; and they want to have voice communications.
The broadband platform is a terrific network for
providing them.

The more unfortunate news is that when you become essentially
a platform for universal service, you are going to run into
questions that the government is going to be interested in. So,
what you see with cable is similar to what Google and Facebook
are now going through with privacy. If these were small companies
that attracted very few users I don’t think people would
be expressing the kind of concerns they are about their privacy
issues.

But whenever a platform becomes near-universal, you start
to get into these questions.

MCN: Looking back, is there anything you would have done
differently on the broadband plan?

BL: There are all kinds of small things that we might have
been clearer about, but fundamentally I am really proud
of the work. The solutions are pretty action-oriented, that
they are doable and not pie in the sky. They are very pragmatic.


For more of this interview, including Levin’s response to criticism
of the plan and his views on the ongoing spectrum-reclamation
debate, visit multichannel.com.