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Levin, Settles Square Off On Broadband Funding Debate

in Broadband's Impact/Education/Universal Service by

WASHINGTON, February 7, 2011 - Blair Levin, head of the team that authored the National Broadband Plan, and Craig Settles, a leading industry analyst, debated at the New America Foundation on Monday the best way to deploy broadband to unserved and underserved areas.

Both Levin and Settles agreed that federal funding is necessary to support deployment due to high costs that many communities cannot meet. They disagreed, however, on how the funding should be distributed.

Levin described USF subsidies as “paying Maserati prices for Chevy level service” to communities.

Levin believes that updating the current universal service system to include a few minor provisions will be enough, but that deployment must focus on what is achievable with the limited amount of funding available. He reiterated the point numerous times that it is highly unlikely for the commission to approve the increasing of USF fees.

According to Levin, a robust ecosystem that creates new platforms will drive innovation and adoption. He highlighted a proposal to replace school textbooks with e-books. This project, he asserted, would better serve an existing market by an updating technology and create a completely new ecosystem of e-readers and content. He hopes projects like this will help spur on economic growth and lead to long-term innovation.

Levin stated that the debate needs to refocus from speed to enriching the broadband related ecosystem that includes applications and people. He acknowledged that one of the minor missteps taken in the promotion of the National Broadband Plan was announcing a goal of 100 Mbps broadband service for all Americans.

“It’s an admirable goal to bring all American’s 100Mbps service," said Levin, "but it’s not something we need to subsidize.  The market is already beginning to offer this speed to customers - such as institutions - who need it.” He went onto say that while they would allow for innovation, in reality most households will not need super-fast speeds.

Contrary to the measured approach supported by Levin, Settles asserted that a wholly new approach is necessary to effectively expand broadband. Settles' approach would center on community-based projects rather than direct subsidies to individuals or telecom companies.

“Direct subsidies to individuals do not solve the long-term problem," he said, "but the creation of sustainable community based networks will.”

Under Settles' plan, communities would present plans to the government for funding. These plans, he maintained, would have to show the intended goals and recipients along with how the network is sustainable and reaches its stated goals. By banding together low-income households into a single entity, the group would be able to gain savings from scale. Settles then cited a program run by the San Fransciso housing authority which provides free access via Wi-Fi to public housing residents.

According to Settles, a community-based approach would have two effects: it would empower local communities to make their own choices as well as demonstrate the importance of broadband. To build such a network, many communities would need to find outside funding, which they would be able to access if the project did not receive funding from the community.  Settles used Google’s "Fiber for Communities" program as an example of how when communities learn the value of broadband they are more likely to build the network even without the initial funding source.

Rahul Gaitonde has been writing for since the fall of 2009, and in May of 2010 he became Deputy Editor. He was a fellow at George Mason University’s Long Term Governance Project, a researcher at the International Center for Applied Studies in Information Technology and worked at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. He holds a Masters of Public Policy from George Mason University, where his research focused on the economic and social benefits of broadband expansion. He has written extensively about Universal Service Fund reform, the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program and the Broadband Data Improvement Act

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