Q&A: Internet Innovation Alliance Co-Chairman David Sutphen


The Internet Innovation Alliance, a coalition of think tanks, nonprofits and companies focused on universal broadband deployment — from AT&T to the National Education Association — has named a new co-chairman, David Sutphen.

If the name is familiar, that’s because he once was senior vice president of government relations for Viacom. Before that, he held a similar lobbying post with the Recording Industry Association of America.

One of the alliance’s goals is to boosting broadband adoption for minority populations that lag behind other groups in high-speed Internet use. That will be in the sweet spot for Sutphen, who is also former general counsel to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), handling civil rights and telecom matters.

He spoke with Multichannel News Washington bureau chief John Eggerton about broadband adoption, network neutrality and the gap between the $350 billion it could cost to roll out an “ideal” broadband network and the just more than $7 billion the government has invested of its own money to date.

MCN: Give us the short answer on what the alliance is all about.

David Sutphen: We’re companies and nonprofits that believe broadband should be, and is, a priority for the country. When the organization was started five years ago, not a lot of people were talking about broadband. Fast-forward five years, and it is hard to think of a policy discussion, whether it is health care or the environment or education, where broadband isn’t a core component of what people are hoping to achieve.

We are doing an event Dec. 10 at the Newseum [in Washington], a symposium that will focus on the impact of broadband in underserved communities, with a particular focus on communities of color. We will be putting out some original research that touches on issues like, 'Is wireless the bridge over the digital divide? And what are some of the applications that are driving adoption by communities of color.

There is still a disconnect between access and adoption.

MCN: Is wireless the bridge?

DS: I think if you look at the numbers, there is some reason to believe that it could be.

Communities of color oversubscribe compared to the broader population, in terms of the adoption of wireless. One of the things I have been saying is we need to delve a little more deeply into some of these issues.

You have about 10 million Americans who don’t have access to any broadband currently. And then there is a universe that has access but for whatever reason, about 40% of them don’t adopt. One of things we are going to talk about at this conference is what are the things that are encouraging African-Americans and Latinos to adopt broadband through wireless platforms at a much quicker pace than wireline.

MCN: You talk about underserved, but coming to the cable side, you understand that cable operators want the government to take care of unserved populations first.

DS: The emphasis in IIA recommendations has been that the focus initially should be on areas where there is no connection whatsoever, whether there is a market failure because you can’t get a reasonable return on investment or because there just hasn’t been attention paid to it. At the end of the day, the first priority I would think would be those who have no connection whatsoever.

MCN: And is the second priority adoption?

DS: I think that goes to the point of doing an assessment, and I presume this will be part of what the national broadband plan encompasses as well, to get an understanding of why people don’t adopt.

I get the sense that some of the people who don’t adopt are afraid of the technology because maybe they are slightly older and they don’t understand it, and there is probably a universe of people who have serious concerns about their privacy and security. That might be preventing them from adopting it.

I think there is an ecosystem of reasons and I think there is probably more that could be done for those communities that have access to get it.

MCN: There have been several groups representing minorities who have argued that the FCC’s network-neutrality proposal could be a disincentive to adoption.

DS: At the end of the day, the network-neutrality conversation is about people who are already connected. It’s not about the people who aren’t already connected. So, is it a fair question to ask about the impact on the digital divide? Yes.

But at the end of the day, our goal is to talk about what is happening in these communities, why aren’t they adopting and where is the investment going to come from going forward.

The [Obama] administration is the one that came out with the figure of needing close to $350 billion to build out the kind of broadband capability that we want ideally in the nation over the next five to eight years. We know there is $7 billion in the stimulus money. That is a big gap. So, another big question is where that investment is going to come from?

MCN: The National Telecommunications & Information Administration asked for input last week on how better to hand out broadband stimulus money. Any thoughts?

DS: I’m not sure I have been here long enough to suggest to NTIA how to do its job better. To their credit, I think they have been very deliberate in listening to the feedback they have gotten.

There is no magic formula to making sure you invest limited resources in programs and initiatives that are working. There is no magic formula when you work in government because there is clearly always a ton of need and an insufficient amount of resources. But they are collecting the kind of information they need to make some thoughtful decisions, and hopefully ones that will enable additional investment capital, which more likely than not going to end up coming from the private sector, to leverage on top of that.