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Telecom and Transportation Should Be Focus of Infrastructure Investments, Says Think Tank

WASHINGTON, July 28 – By combining better public information, market mechanisms and smarter systems of subsidization, the government can play a positive role in funding infrastructure investments in telecommunications, according to three reports released Friday by the Brookings Institution.



WASHINGTON, July 28 – By combining better public information, market mechanisms and smarter systems of subsidization, the government can play a positive role in funding infrastructure investments in telecommunications, according to three reports released Friday by the Brookings Institution.

The papers, released on Friday at an event that also featured an address by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, are part of a Brookings Institution initiative promoting investments in infrastructure – both physical, transportation investments, as well as new ways to spur improvements in the telecommunications infrastructure.

“No economy improves with a declining infrastructure,” said Kaine, a Democrat. “Unless you make that high-tech investment easy by telecom access, you won’t get” improvements in your state’s economic condition, he said.

Brookings, a liberal-leaning think tank, released the reports as part of an initiative dubbed the “Hamilton Project.” The project seeks to put forward policy ideas that “embrac[e] a role for effective government in making needed public investments,” according to the think tank.

Friday’s event featured the release of six reports: three on transportation, two on telecommunications, and an overview report with recommendations on both subjects.

“The rapid page of technological progress in telecommunications and the widespread dispersion of new products and services… may present an appearance that all is well in this sector,” according to the overview report, by Manasi Deshpande and Douglas Elmendorf.

However, the overview report continued, “evidence indicates that the United States lags behind other industrial nations in broadband access and its concomitant economic and social benefits.”

In addition to two panel discussion about telecom and transportation, Friday’s event featured speeches by Kaine and former Clinton administration treasury secretaries Lawrence Summers and Robert Rubin.

As with Summers and Rubin, who addressed the role that physical infrastructure improvements can have upon the economy, Kaine spoke primarily about transportation-related investments.

But Kaine specifically linked investments in high-speed internet services to transportation improvements.

“The work we are doing in northern Virginia on broadband is helping transportation growth,” he said, adding that better broadband availability permits more people to telecommute. That takes some of the strain off the transportation system.

Kaine also said spoke about the state’s investment of $300 million into a broadband networks in rural Virginia. Although much of the money came from the universal service fund, a subsidization system for rural and education-related telecommunications, the funds were supplemented by half of the state’s proceeds from the class-action tobacco litigation of the 1990s.

“We took half of the money, and we invested in the tobacco-growing regions of south side and southwest Virginia, and much of that money is going to broadband deployment,” said Kaine.

As a result, “88 percent of the industrial parks in Virginia now have the best access to high-speed telecom” anywhere in the country, he said. That kind of access is necessary to promote economic development, create jobs, and keep people off the roads in more congested parts of the Virginia, he said.

Kaine also addressed the issue of broadband mapping, and efforts by Virginia to better understand the broadband options available to its citizens.

“It is amazing that we will be one of the first states next year with precise data on what percentage of residences have telecom access right at their doorstep,” Kaine said in his speech. “Even getting that data was difficult. But we have a measurement project in place where we are getting propriety information in appropriate ways [and] can measure the percentages” with broadband access.

In the question-and-answer-session, this reporter asked Kaine to elaborate on whether Virginia had agreed to shield the names of carriers – and if so, why – from its statewide broadband map.

Kaine replied that the broadband carriers “would share information with us but only if their competitors don’t get to see it, and if it is held in a proprietary way.”

But he said that “there will probably be a second step of what we’ll do, where we say, ‘how can we take the information now that we have it, and make that information available for Virginia citizens so that they will know what choices they have.’” (See transcript here.)

Of the two papers devoted to telecommunications released by the project on Friday, one addressed ways to bring broadband to unserved communities, and the other addressed ways to better exploit the promise of electromagnetic spectrum by making radio frequencies available for broadband.

In “Bringing Broadband to Unserved Communities,” Jon Peha, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, proposed that the federal government provide incentives for companies to build broadband in rural areas by holding a “reverse auction” whereby carriers would bid to provide broadband in a particular areas at the lowest possible cost.

“Reverse auctions” – so called because bidders seek to be paid to accomplish a burden rather than paying to obtain a benefit – have previously been proposed for rural telecommunications. They have been opposed by rural telephone companies, which are currently paid based upon their expenses – and which are generally quite high.

Peha also suggested that the obligations purchased in a reverse auction be fully tradable. “The idea is an extension of pollution permits – one of the greatest innovations in pollution reduction,” Peha wrote in his paper. “By giving individual polluters greater flexibility, tradable permits allow an industry as a whole to meet specific objectives for pollution reduction at the minimum cost.”

Here, of course, the objective is efficiently providing universal broadband, rather than reducing pollution. An additional proposal by Peha calls for the Federal Communication Commission to allow the use of “white spaces,” or the vacant channels on the television band.

In “The Untapped Promise of Wireless Spectrum,” Philip Weiser, a professor of law and telecommunications at the University of Colorado, makes a three-fold proposal for tapping the promise of wireless communications.

First, Weiser wants the FCC to create “an easily accessible and transparent database that identifies (and exposes) all licensed bands of spectrum, a contact person for the licensee, and stated terms for the opportunity to lease access” to the spectrum. This would be accompanied by policy changes encourging private parties to inform the agency when spectrum holders are making poor use of their spectrum.

Second, Weiser urges “liberating the UHF broadband spectrum,” or those portions of the Ultra-High Frequency television band currently occupied by television broadcasters. Weiser’s proposal appears to be at odds with Peha’s “white spaces” proposal in that Weiser urges that broadcasters be effectively cleared from their spaces on the spectrum, rather than finding a way for broadband-capable devices to co-exist with digital television broadcasters.

Third, Weiser wants to recharter the FCC so that it will be less susceptible to “the art of spectrum lobbying,” or the easily ability for incumbents to use the agency as an anti-competitive tool against new market entrants.

Blair Levin, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus and chief of staff to former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, in the Clinton administration, offered critiques of both Peha’s and Weiser’s proposals.

The “Hamilton Project” is named after Alexander Hamilton, the first U.S. treasury secretary and a noted proponent of “internal improvements” in infrastructure.

From January 2007 to June 2008, the project was led by Jason Furman, a former advisory to presidential candidate John Kerry and the the newly appointed director of economic policy for the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.

Editor’s Note:

During the question and answer session, I had the opportunity to ask Gov. Kaine about whether — and if so, why — Virginia had decided to shield the names of carriers on its map of broadband availability in Virginia. His reply is summarized above. The full transcript of my question and his answer is available here.

In a public filing on July 17, 2008, urged the Federal Communications Commission to revise its current policy of witholding the names of the broadband providers that serve a particular ZIP code, or a particular census tract. See the filing here.

-Drew Clark, Editor,

Documents Referenced in this Article:

Broadband Mapping

In Discussing ‘Broadband and the Biden Administration,’ Trump and Obama Transition Workers Praise Auctions



Screenshot from the November 2 Broadband Breakfast Live Online webcast

November 22, 2020 – In the event that the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden seeks substantial funding for broadband infrastructure, there is a strong likelihood that such monies would be channeled through a reverse-auction mechanism, said panelists at the Broadband Breakfast Live Online event on November 11.

See more from Broadband Breakfast Live Online, including “Broadband and the Biden Administration, Part II,” on December 2, 2020.

In a discussion with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark, two broadband policy experts who served on the transition teams for Donald Trump and Barack Obama, respectively, championed the role of such a mechanism as efficient and fair.

Previous attempts to run funding through other selection processes provided funds only to the well connected, claimed to Mark Jamison, research and education director at the University of Florida, and who served on then President-elect Trump’s 2016 transition team.

Places with a Democratic governor or a congressman of either party that sat on a powerful committee were funded more often compared to other regions, Jamison said.

Whether or not funding mechanisms were in fact biased in that way, both Jamison and Technology Policy Institute President Scott Wallsten both praised the transparency and economic efficiency of the Federal Communications Commission’s reverse-auction funding mechanism.

Wallsten, an economist who was involved in the transition for then President-elect Obama, and who also served on the National Broadband Plan implemented in the first year of the Obama administration, criticized the Rural Utility Service and the old funding process of Universal Service Fund. Both said under these mechanism, a lot of money is spent without good information about how such funds are awarded or distributed.

Wallsten and Jamison agreed that more data would help make broadband funding more effective, they also said that the FCC was right to move forward with its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction on October 29 – part of the new auction-based approach to the Universal Service Fund – despite imperfect mapping.

In part, this was because any inadequacy of mapping data can be resolved in the challenge process, said Wallsten. Additionally, it is not clear that auctions like RDOF, or the Connect American Fund auction in 2018, would have yielded better results had the FCC waited to update their maps.

Jamison and Wallston also projected how the Biden administration might tackle net neutrality, Section 230 and antitrust regulation.

Jamison said that if the Biden administration reinstitutes net neutrality, it will quickly see that that won’t work very well.

Wallsten said that if it’s reinstituted the debate will be different than in the past. A large part of net neutrality is paid prioritization where third parties can pay ISP’s to put their content “at the front of the line.” He said that the pandemic has demonstrated why no paid prioritization may be a mistake, as many people need guarantees of stable connection for their schooling and telehealth applications.

Wallsten also noted that many made doom and gloom forecasts when the Trump administration FCC removed net neutrality protections in December 2017. None of those predictions came to pass, he said.

Both also agreed that the FCC should not be involved the regulation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects tech platforms from liability for user-generated comments.

They also were wary of changes to the consumer welfare standard governing antitrust because, said Jamison, “If you’re not regulating for consumers, who are we regulating for?”

See “Broadband Breakfast Live Online on Wednesday, November 11: Broadband and the Biden Administration,” Broadband Breakfast

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National Broadband Plan

National Broadband Plan Has Held Up Well, With Notable Downsides, Say Authors



Photo of Blair Levin, former executive director of the National Broadband Plan, by New America used with permission

June 29, 2020 — The National Broadband Plan has been successful, despite notable downsides, said panelists in a Federal Communications Bar Association webinar on Friday.

The plan, first released ten years ago, aimed to increase competition, provide lower-cost service to more Americans and decrease regulatory barriers to broadband rollout.

“Ten years in this space in terms of technology is remarkable,” said Rebekah Goodheart of Jenner & Block. “At the time only 15 percent of people had access… of 25 megabits… The fact that this plan was able to stand up through time shows how visionary it really was.”

“All the stuff that we’re taking for granted now are things that came out of recommendations from the plan,” she added.

Participants noted that, despite broadband access deficiencies amid the coronavirus, “overall broadband adoption rates [are] going up reasonably well right now,” said John Horrigan, Senior Fellow at the Technology Policy Institute.

But there are still significant barriers to unfettered telework capabilities, he said.

“We’re also waking up to the fact that smartphones, as useful as they are, have significant limitations for completing homework,” he said.

Ruth Milkman of Quadra Partners agreed.

“There’s a lot of stuff you can’t do on a smartphone,” she said. “It’s hard to read papers… and there are data caps, and it can be quite expensive if you try to use it in the same way that you would use a fixed wireline network.”

Blair Levin, non-resident Fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Project of the Brookings Institution, said that sections of the National Broadband Plan held up remarkably well, even ten years later.

“In the healthcare section which says, ‘We really need to utilize telehealth because someday there’ll be a pandemic’… it does look very prophetic,” he said.

Despite the proactivity of the policy, Levin said, it has certain shortcomings that the FCC should address.

“We’ve become much more aware in this society of different ways in which our institutions do not include everyone and lead to inequalities,” he said. “I would argue that absolutely needs to be a new plan… now it’s more important than ever because we recognize the importance of closing that digital divide.”

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Digital Inclusion

Authors of the 2010 National Broadband Plan Say That a ‘Refresh’ Should Not Only Be Up to FCC



Photo of INCOMPAS policy summit panelists discussing the National Broadband Plan by Adrienne Patton

WASHINGTON, March 4, 2020 – Panelists at the INCOMPAS policy summit Tuesday looked back with fondness on the Federal Communication Commission’s National Broadband Plan that was released 10 years ago this month. They agreed that if the plan is refreshed, the FCC should not be the lone agency to lead in the changes.

The 10-year-old plan was designed to “ensure robust competition” and “maximize the benefits of broadband,” while fostering the spread of broadband across the country, said INCOMPAS General Counsel Angie Kronenberg.

New Street Research Policy Analyst Blair Levin, who led the plan’s development, called it a “three-act play.”

The first act was the hiring people. The second act was holding hearings and acquiring data. The third act was an extensive writing process, Levin said.

When asked how the United States is doing in regards to the plan, Levin said there have been great improvements and some complications.

Mattey Consulting Principal Carol Mattey who worked on the plan, said it was a “long and evolutionary process,” that often required “nitty gritty details” from complex concepts.

Technology Policy Institute Senior Fellow John Horrigan, who also worked on the plan, said that while the statistics do not show a large increase in Americans that have wireline broadband at home, smart phones and mobile devices have made a huge difference.

Even so, Horrigan admitted that for children who have to do homework at home, smart phones are not enough.

However, Horrigan said the way that policy makers understand and think about the digital divide has improved.

A decade ago, city mayors were not concerned about digital inclusion, and now that has changed, said Horrigan.

Levin disclosed his frustration with the “metrics” section of the plan. The availability of bandwidth should not hinder economic growth, said Levin. But, “fundamentally we’ve made progress,” Levin admitted.

“The regulatory process is too slow to catch up,” and legislators are hesitant to look so far in the future while also considering cost concerns, said Mattey.

Looking ahead to a possible refresh of the plan, Horrigan said the FCC should not be the sole organization reworking the document.

Levin agreed and added that broadband has changed over the past decade as well. He called broadband a “mixed bag.”

The whole federal government should be thinking about how to revive the plan and take into consideration cybersecurity and privacy, Levin advised.

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