The Near Future Is Now

NCTA head Michael Powell offers a preview of the association’s ‘disruptive’ conference

When Michael Powell revealed last fall that NCTA-The Internet & Television Association was canceling INTX: The Internet & Television Expo, its long-running conference, he hinted there was room for something else.

That “something else” is “The Near Future,” a Internet-centric, TED Talk-infused confab of speakers and demonstrations of virtual reality, artificial intelligence and even, if NCTA and the University of Southern California can pull it off, a combination of the two in the person of a virtual holocaust survivor answering questions about that horrific event in real time.

The Internet is already the transformative technology of the new millennium, but NCTA on April 27 will look at what new tech will be transforming the Internet, which depends on the unsexy but vital networks Powell’s members provide.

Powell, himself a former top policymaker as Federal Communications Commission chair under President George W. Bush, is famous for waxing rhapsodic about new technology. But The Near Future conference, set to take place at Washington, D.C.’s Union Market, is more than just a rhapsody in blue-sky musings, according to Powell. Instead, it is meant to be a way to look just far enough ahead so that policymakers, rather than looking backward, can lean forward into that future as they come up with new policies, as well as a chance to remind those regulators, legislators and Trump administration officials just who is putting the “I” in the next generation of IoT — in this case, the Internet of Transformation.

In an interview with Multichannel News Washington bureau chief John Eggerton, Powell talked about the his vision of the conference — for one thing, there are no plans to make it an annual event — the need for a disruptive and experimental approach, and his views on a policy issue he said is central to the industry’s future, near and otherwise — network neutrality. Here’s an edited transcript of their conversation.

MCN: You said canceling INTX gave NCTA a clean slate. What is your goal for “The Near Future,” and what do you hope to write on that slate?
Michael Powell: I think it is important to say at the outset that this isn’t INTX, part two. This isn’t in any way intended to be that show or a pale substitute for the show. It is a distinctly different idea that occurred to us based on work we were doing even previous to the show.

And we haven’t talked about this much before, but we have had a lot of discussions about industry positioning and messaging and wanting it to be a lot more focused on the exciting things that are happening in the near future, a lot more focus on our role in the Internet and high-tech ecosystem.

We changed our entire brand, in part, around that attempted shift in focus. That was all occurring even before the decision [to cancel the show]. So, I think this was a kernel of an idea stemming from that work. The show merely gave us the dates, time and space to do it, and to do it in Washington [where INTX was to have been held].

I think part of what we’ve always felt is that there is an aspect to our role in the great and glorious Internet that’s not always appreciated.

MCN: What do you mean by that?
MP: Much like the Intel slogan that so many great things were powered by Intel inside, we think there are so many phenomenal things that happened that are fundamentally powered by the infrastructure that we provide. Networks are not always the sexiest part of the story, but they are an indispensable part of the present and the future.

And rather than sitting around talking all day about Gigabits and how fast capacity is, etc., we thought that since we are the platform for so many exciting things, why don’t we do a conference that is a platform for presenting those? So, we will have a series of speakers and presentations that show some of the exciting things that are happening out there that rarely get seen in Washington.

People go out to Silicon Valley and see the latest this and that, or some conferences in Austin or somewhere else will show some of these things. But it is not too common that you will see a traditional industry in D.C. show off some of this stuff and making the connection that what we do helps them do what they do.

MCN: Is this a way to remind Washington that this industry is the “I” in IoT?
MP: Yes — I like the way you put that. But I think the different thing you will see here is that IoT is cool, but the devices are relatively mundane, meaning your thermostat and Amazon Echo will be part of the story, too, and will be taxing on the network. But that’s sort of here now already. The Near Future is meant to see a little bit past that. Not just the simple appliances, but the paradigm-shifting devices: virtual reality, holographic uses, floating screens, smart cities, autonomous vehicle situations that might require artificial intelligence machine learning functions. (See box.)

MCN: What do you want the attendees to come away with?
I hope that people leave the conference with the perception that we are very much a part of the high-tech industry, we are a necessary ingredient to all of our near future and future national ambitions around this stuff, and that we are very strong partners to some of the greatest innovators and inventors doing work in the country today.

MCN: This is an invitation-only event. Why limit it?
We wanted it to be smaller and more intimate, given the nature of what we wanted to show.

MCN: Which is?
MP: A lot of the demonstrations and a lot of the people we are bringing in are the kinds of things that show best in a smaller, more-intimate venue in which people are able to see, touch, feel some of what’s happening. Even in Disneyland, they limit how many people can get on the ride so it’s a really good ride.

And we wanted it to be special, something that a limited number of folks got to come see in order to create some buzz and energy.

MCN: Is this targeted primarily to policymakers?
A pretty healthy chunk of it is for policymakers and important staff that are charged with developing policies for the near future. I think another theme is that regulation and public policy so often is looking backwards to address something happening in the present, relatively ignorant of its impact on the future.

I’ve always thought that a more constructive dialogue around policymaking is not to be a futurist, looking so far into the future that it is meaningless to policy, but looking far enough down the road so that policy can be a bit more anticipatory than it is today.

Part of the message to the probably more than half the audience that will be in the policy world will be showing you what is coming to help you anticipate what will be the public-policy issues of tomorrow. The idea is to all be thinking about them and working on them as we head toward them, as opposed to being reactive to things that come up using rearward understanding.

So there will be a good contingent of those folks from all parts of the government: the Hill, the commission, branches of the administration.

MCN: And the others?
MP: Our board will be present, as will a limited number of people from the cable industry itself. There will be trade press and media types in the room to cover it all. And a lot of the companies we have gotten to know who are participating [including Google VR, IBM Watson, Zoom] will also bring cohorts of people from their own universe to get to know our cable folks, as well as to interactively participate in what is going on. So that will be a fresh part of the audience as well.

MCN: Is this a one-off or do you want it to become an annual event?
MP: I don’t think we have any preordained plans about what happens next, but, no, I don’t think its intention is to be annual. Part of this is experimenting, and we’ll see how it goes and what the values were and crunch all that and think about what we do next. But, no, it is not conceptualized as the new annual event.

MCN: What do you think could be the most transformative technology for the industry in this near future?
MP: There are different lenses you could look through to answer that question. I think one would be: If we are building high-capacity, low-latency edge computer networks, what kinds of things are coming online that demand the most from that?

I think an enormous suite of things related to virtual reality certainly fit that bill. Not just the entertainment social-value uses like gaming in the home, but the industrial uses, design, virtual surgical centers, virtual training. There is a whole lot of that that we will show.

MCN: What could be the most important policy undertaken by the new chairman, either something he has already done, or you want him to do, that could bring that future even nearer?
MP: I don’t want to reduce it to “holy wars,” but I think that the political policy struggle that has been 15 years in the making that we call “net neutrality” or “the open Internet” or “Title II” is the touchstone of the regulatory future. It is more than a battle over open Internet rules. It is, unfortunately, also a battle about the Internet regulatory paradigm for a long time.

My criticism of prior commissions is that I think they rewrote the statute [involving] government at a dramatically deeper and more invasive level over Internet activity than I think was ever imagined, contemplated or hoped for.

Now, there is a smart set of people who believe that is the way it should be. I believe there is a smart set of honest people who believe that isn’t the way it should be. But I think to the extent that the chairman recognizes and is looking for additional modifications on how that all should land, I think that is the most important question.

Unfortunately, I think it gets dragged down into a “holy war,” and I think it is a very bad way for the country to debate something that is profoundly important.

MCN: You talked about the FCC rewriting statutes. Do you think chairman Ajit Pai can rewrite them differently, or should Congress weigh in?
Congress should have weighed in a long time ago. They are the ones charged with writing the law and I think we have been pretty consistent that legislative work in this area is past due.

But we are talking about a statute [the Communications Act] that is now decades old; its ambiguity has grown while its relevance has faded. It has created a lot of confusion over at the commission so that you can get this kind of spinning top. The problem with the way the [Open Internet order] decision was upheld by the [U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit] further complicates that, which is to say we have this almost infinite deference standard. So, frankly, that is an invitation to any commission to kind of cobble together their rationale.

MCN: How quickly do you think Congress could act to change that, given the current political makeup?
MP: Nothing in Congress is supersonic. I tend to think of Congress in chunks of two-year periods, and it seems to me that it is not at all inconceivable that in the next two years they can do this. The real question is, will the politics get out of the way?

MCN: Will it?
MP: I know plenty of Democrats who would support legislation in balanced form, and it is just that the politics aren’t ready yet. So the question is really about whether the politics will align with the will, and that’s what we’re all working on.

MCN: But in the interim, the chairman seems to be suggesting that a way to approach network neutrality enforcement without Title II is to have the industry pledge to uphold basic voluntary openness principles and have the Federal Trade Commission oversee that using its authority to go after false and deceptive conduct. Is that an interim solution that could work?
MP: It could. I don’t know enough about how it would look in its final form, but I understand the elements and the elements are sound. I don’t know if that will be politically satisfactory to some. For some, it certainly never will be. But as a legal, regulatory matter, is there a functioning concept there? Sure.

I also have read the press and think it is somewhat a little overwrought at this stage.

MCN: You don’t think that is going to happen?
MP: I think the commission is still looking at all the options and I think the fact that people have heard about this one concept and it is being reported as “the plan.” I find that a little over-certain. I think some decisions are still yet to me made.

MCN: How do you reassure folks who are worried that voluntary commitments aren’t going to work for broadband privacy now that the rules have been rolled back by Congress?
MP: First of all, let’s be clear about what happened and what didn’t happen. Nothing was taken away from consumers. Even if the rules were going to strengthen privacy protections, they never went into effect. So, it is not something consumers had one day that Republicans took away from them the next.

So the hysteria that there is suddenly a steady state different from the one they lived in for the last 20-plus years of the Internet is a gross misrepresentation of the status quo. Then, over the course of those 20-plus years as Internet users, ISPs who were not under any FCC set of Wheeler rules, have never collected — never — the data that hysterically now we are said to be on the verge of collecting. They have very strict privacy policies that they communicate to all their customers saying they don’t collect this data, and they provide opt-outs for data they do use, which is usually for internal marketing purposes.

Those terms of service are not just voluntary. They are contractual rights to the consumer. You have contracted with me that the condition of me subscribing to this service is that you will not do these things. That is enforceable by the consumer, and by the Federal Trade Commission, and by attorneys general and others.

MCN: And second?
MP: The second thing I think is so important is that, to make a simple analogy, Wheeler’s rules were putting a new lock on the back door but left the front door wide open.

MCN: For edge providers such as Amazon, Netflix and Google?
MP: It is completely comical to suggest to the American consumer that their data is not being collected and sold just because ISPs can’t do it. Anywhere you go using an ISP, [an edge provider] is going to do the very thing that supposedly we are all up in arms about being done. And those companies are gigantic vacuums of personal data, none of which were subject to ISP rules.

MCN: So the argument that ISPs are qualitatively different because they have access to everywhere a subscriber goes online does not wash?
MP: ISPs are different. We are actually weaker collectors of data than [edge providers] are.

MCN: How so?
MP: Most of the data that goes through the network is encrypted. And consumers change networks all through the day. They leave our pipe and then they go to a mobile phone. So, not any one of us has a complete picture of that person’s habits. But Google does.

And when [users] switch from their home Internet connection to their iPhone, they are still going to Facebook.

Wheeler says that the consumer owns his data and that the consumer should decide where it goes. If we want that to be the paradigm for the country, I am all for it. But it is only real if you make those guys do it, too.

Ask policymakers if they are so concerned with consumer data, why do their concerns stop at the edge of their political constituencies?

MCN: “As long as Internet is the foundation of all of the opportunities and choices, that still provides a pretty powerful place for cable in the home,” you told C-SPAN. Is The Near Future all about broadband, or is there something for the cable side as well?
MP: It’s also about our entertainment companies for two reasons. First, more and more of the entertainment industry does lots of creative things in the Internet space as well. Second, a lot of these technologies are really big breakthroughs for film and entertainment and storytelling. So part of the event will feature presentations from folks who are working in the creative industry on how they are using some of this technology for better storytelling.

MCN: Is there anything on the agenda, session or speaker, that you are particularly excited about?
MP: That is very hard, but there is one demo I’m very anxious to see. It is going to be something that USC brings that is going to be a holographic Holocaust survivor connected to very sophisticated machine learning capability who is able to answer questions and interact with people live. We hope to be able to stage that and, if we do, that will be really cool. It is housed out in California, part of a USC/Steven Spielberg project.