NTIA Has Broadband Role to Play

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April 13 is the deadline for the cable industry and others to tell the National Telecommunications & Information Administration how it should structure the broadband grant program. So Multichannel News’s John Eggerton checked in with Larry Irving, the head of the agency under the last Democratic president, to get his views. Irving also advised the Obama campaign and transition team on communications policy and is co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance, a coalition focused on universal broadband deployment. A longer version of this interview can be found at Multichannel.com.

MCN: What specific advice would you give to NTIA as they prepare to give out all this money?

Larry Irving: Lyndon Johnson said about appointments in government that for every one you make 99 enemies and one ingrate. NTIA is going to be facing a similar scenario in terms of the grants. One of the things NTIA has to be very cognizant of is that for every grant they give, it’s 'thanks very much for the money, now go away.’

If you really care about a national broadband strategy, there is going to need to be continued review, oversight and responsibility at NTIA, which has to file quarterly reports on every grant that goes out there.

It is important that grant recipients are not looking to NTIA as a funding source, but as a partner. We can’t do all the things with federal dollars that need to be done in this country.

What we learn from the grants will be really helpful in terms of a going-forward strategy for NTIA, the [Federal Communications Commission] and the [Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service].

MCN: Are there too many cooks with all these agencies involved?

LI: No. You have really smart people who play well in the sandbox together. NTIA has a broad role, RUS has a more specific role with regard to rural America, and the FCC has a policy role.

The FCC a year from now has to come up with a broadband strategy for the country. If they are not looking at what RUS and NTIA are doing and talking to them about what is really happening in the hinterlands, you are not going to be getting informed decisions by the bureaucracy. The best information is what is happening in the marketplace. How are people really responding? What happens when you put federal dollars in? What kinds of coalitions can you put together? Do community access centers really make a difference? When somebody goes to a library and has an experience with broadband that is positive, does that give them encouragement to go home and make an investment in a home broadband system?

Who are the people using these systems in those centers? If you are going to spend $7 billion, and that is only a downpayment, you’ve got to get it right. In addition to that $7 billion that the government is spending, you are going to see something between $50 and $80 billion spent by the private sector. What encouragement, winks, nods, body language can the government give to the private sector to make sure that money is spent wisely in terms of public policy?

MCN: Are you saying the government can’t dictate how this should happen?

LI: Certainly public policy will affect how much is invested and where it is invested. People make investments based on a lot of factors and certainly public policy is one of them. But competition is another one. The reality is the reason you are seeing vast investments on the part of the telcos and the cable guys is that they are staring each other down. The reason you are seeing Clearwire make huge investments is they want to compete against AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile.

You want to use competitive spurs where appropriate and you want regulatory spurs where appropriate, but only where appropriate. And you don’t want to overregulate, but you don’t want to underregulate if you have a prospect of market abuses. So it is a calibration.

One of the things that nobody talks about much with regards to these grants is something that I think is really important and has to be top of mind to somebody giving out a lot of money. And that is something I gave a lot of thought to when I was running a much-smaller grant program. And that is sustainability.

When you put a dollar into a grant program, and you give a community or an entity federal dollars to create an infrastructure, what happens when those federal dollars go away? This is a one time only infusion of money in most instances. Can that entity, community sustain that infrastructure? And if that is not the first question it better be the second question.

You don’t want to invest in things and shut them down in three or four years. That is just not a good use of taxpayer dollars. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be investment in local projects, but it does mean the sustainability question has to be asked.

MCN: Who should take the lead in the broadband rollout?

LI: The FCC has to come up with a national broadband strategy. I hope and expect that NTIA will help inform it, and RUS will inform it. But there are others — the Department of Energy; the Department of Interior. And there needs to be somewhere in the White House where everybody has to stand up and salute when information is requested if we are going to have a true broadband policy. Then, there has to be a way for those in the industry who are making the investment and local and state governments to be involved heavily in that process.

There are a lot of different pieces that have to be plugged in, and you will need strong leadership from the White House.