Q&A: FCC Broadband Advisor Blair Levin: We'll Meet Deadline


 Federal Communications Commission broadband advisor Blair Levin's team has been working over the holidays as they bear down on a Feb. 17 deadline Levin tells Multichannel News they will meet, if not beat.

Levin says the cable industry has stepped up with DOCSIS3.0 high-speed modem service and their offer of half-price broadband to low-income households with kids. He also calls Rep. Rick Boucher's suggestion of baseline speeds a good aspirational goal, but does not see that as a mandate.

He says the commission will wait and see how industry responds to the chairman's call for discounted broadband for low income families.

Levin discussed these and other subjects in a recent interview with MCN Washington editor John Eggerton. An edited transcript follows.

Multichannel News: What is the current status of the broadband plan?

Blair Levin: We've met the benchmarks we set out in July in terms of reporting to the commission as we developed this. We are in the process of writing. We'll be doing a lot of briefings .We've been briefing commissioner's offices at various times. We expect that in January that [briefing commissioners] will be a very significant part of what we are doing.

 We anticipate releasing the plan on or before the date Congress asked for it, which is Feb. 17.

MCN: So, you may beat the deadline?

BL: It's always a possibility?

MCN: Will you give it first to the commissioners, and do they have to vote on the report before it is released to Congress?

BL: The law simply requires that the commission deliver a plan.

The question of how the commissioners describe the plan is one that is best left to the commissioners. We are in conversations about that. This is a very unusual kind of assignment. It is not voting on a notice of proposed rulemaking, but it is not voting on a report in the same way as a number of reports to Congress past. So, it is an unusual thing and I think that everyone in good faith is trying to figure out what the best way of proceeding is.

MCN: Will the report have an online incarnation that can be updated, since we assume the plan is going to take years to accomplish?

BL: The point is a very good one. The plan itself will be subject to many further proceedings and actions. We will do our best to deliver to the best of our ability a plan in mid-February. We are quite certain that in the course of implementing it, various stakeholders will find better ideas and new technologies and over time there will be a variety of different addendums to it.

But what we are really focused on is what we can say by mid-February to help chart a path to address the Congressional mandate.

MCN: How long will it take to implement the plan?

BL: I think there are certain aspects of it that can be done within the year. There are other aspects of it that are much more long-term. It really depends on the nature of the [issue]. For example, one of the things I know that is important to the people who read your magazine is spectrum.

Nothing is going to happen right away regarding spectrum. There may be individual wireless companies that will have spectrum issues today. We think that is a company issue, not a national issue. We do think at least on the basis of the evidence we have seen, and I should note that I have not read the things that came in today [Dec. 22], that there is a distinct possibility of within five years of having what one would regard as a national problem.

That doesn't mean we need to act tomorrow, but it does mean we need to start thinking about how we act to prevent that problem. Another example of a problem that can't be fixed overnight is universal service.

As with other transitions from analog wireless to digital mobile voice, as well as, of course, the move from analog broadcast to digital television broadcast, the commission does have a role in making sure certain consumer interests are protected.

So, there are short-term, mid-term and long-term aspects of the plan.

MCN: What does the cable industry need to do to make the broadband transition a success?

BL: It is not really the way I think about it. What we are focused on is the policies that the government can undertake to help achieve the congressional mandate of connecting everyone, having it be affordable, have maximum utilization, and serve national purposes.

Cable is one of the two major ways people access fixed broadband. Their upgrade to DOCSIS 3.0 is a very significant fact. They have an interest, as do others, in having government policy assist in adoption where there are barriers to entry for which marketing alone is not really the issue.

There are other barriers that are appropriately the role of government. This is a debatable role about what the role of government is. But I think if you take the position that broadband should become a universal service, to the extent someone is making a personal choice just as some people choose not to subscribe to telephone service, maybe government doesn't have a role there.

But to the extent that you have issues of digital literacy, low income or other kinds of barriers where traditionally government has been the bridge, cable has an interest in that.

One of the things that is striking to us in our research is the degree to which high school students rely on the Internet for their homework. Cable has stepped up with a plan [Adoption-Plus], and they have done a good job of analyzing that it is not just about connectivity and there are a number of different pieces that have to come together.

So, it is admirable that cable has both analyzed correctly and stepped up with an offer. Whether the other pieces can come together is part of what they, and we and others are working on [Cable's offer of half-price broadband to low-income households with middle schoolers is contingent on a government education program and a price break for computers].

MCN: FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has suggested that cable should expand that price break to other low income homes.

BL: Yes. That call was not just to cable but all the ISPs. Affordability is a big issue. The question is can there be a low-cost basic broadband service offered only to those who would be eligible for lifeline and link-up service. We'll see how people respond.

MCN: House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher wants the plan to set a minimum broadband speed of 50 mbps downstream and 20 mbps upstream. Will that be in there?

BL: I think he is absolutely right to say we ought to have some aspirational goals that are very different than benchmarks, and very different from what you might think of in terms of the definition of broadband as a universal service. We as a country ought to aspire to be leading in a variety of different ways. And to the extent that we don't achieve them, we ought to be looking at why we don't achieve them and what other paths we can take.

MCN: So, there won't be any Feb. 17 mandate for those speeds.

BL: I don't think he was calling for a mandate. I'm not sure exactly who in government would have authority to mandate such a thing.

I think what he called for was certain download and upload speeds, actual, not advertised, to a certain percentage of the population. I think there are a number of aspirational goals and I really appreciate his kind of putting a stake in the ground. It will certainly be interesting to see what other folks say.

MCN: What will you consider success for this plan, how will you measure it and will the plan include benchmarks to measure it?

BL: There certainly will be recommendations of benchmarks. All of us who have been working so hard on this in the past 180 days will all have their own personal measurement. But the key thing is did we provide a path forward to meet the Congressional objective.

MCN: How much longer will the broadband team stay together after Feb. 17.

BL: Nobody leaves on Feb. 18. I think. We have been working with bureaus and others at the FCC as well as others in government to try to figure out not only what the right answers are but what the process is afterwards.

The work does not precisely end, but there is a certain job that will end. Whereas it is important to make sure those who will be implementing it get the full benefit of the intellectual capital that has been created, I expect that a number of people will be doing something else over the summer.

MCN: And you?

BL: I don't answer any questions about myself except to say I'm a short-termer.

MCN: I'm told the broadband team was working over the holidays. Anything you want to say about or to them?

BL: One of the great joys of this has been working with just the most extraordinary team-- dedicated, hardworking.

I tend to get here pretty early in the morning and there are a bunch of folks here. I tend to leave pretty late at night and there are a bunch of folks here. We were all here during the snow day. Look, a lot of us would rather be throwing snowballs at our kids, but we all know that in some sense we have been given a gift to work on something very important to the country. We'd all like to make it the best possible thing we can