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National Broadband Plan

FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell on C-SPAN’s ‘Communicators’

WASHINGTON, January 8, 2010 – With about a month left until the Federal Communications Commission delivers its National Broadband Plan to Congress, Commissioner Robert McDowell spoke about the impending plan – as well as spectrum politics, Net neutrality and competition in the video media landscape – on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.”



WASHINGTON, January 8, 2010 –  With about a month left until the Federal Communications Commission delivers its National Broadband Plan to Congress, Commissioner Robert McDowell spoke about the impending plan – as well as spectrum politics, Net neutrality and competition in the video media landscape – on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.”

Commissioner McDowell began by commending the quality work of the broadband team and the numerous updates and outlines that have been presented over the past year.

The interview with Washington Post Report Cecilia Kang, was conducted before FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski requested a month-long extension of the February 17, 2010, deadline. McDowell said that the agency’s five agency commissioners would have their first look at the broadband plan on February 11. McDowell also said that there was no requirement that the agency would vote formally on the proposal.

A whether there will be any Republican dissent to the plan, McDowell countered that the Republicans and Democrats on the Commission can dissent on any number of issues but that will not affect the outcome of the presentation to Congress.

McDowell hopes Congress will analyze and consider all of the issues and take appropriate action to stir adoption through tax incentives or other means. Once the plan is in the hands of Congress the Commission will then be able to focus on other essential spin off issues such as changes to the Universal Service Fund subsidy program.

When asked about the true purpose of the plan for 2010, McDowell said that while some studies claim that there is already a 95 percent penetration rate for broadband, the true question is whether “those speeds are actually fast enough and whether there is enough bandwidth for cutting edge technologies?”

He followed by explaining that while cable might pass 92% of the country, with an upgrade to DOCIS 3.0, 92 percent of the country might actually be wired to 100 Megabits per second.

Since he came to the agency, McDowell’s main focus has been on the construction of new delivery platforms such as fiber, wireless and satellite. These delivery platforms are the only real way to address the broadband supply gap.

Kang mentioned that the Commissioner’s comments echo some of the most recent correspondence from the administration calling for the need for more competition.

She asked McDowell what are his beliefs on the competitive landscape specifically the wireless sector and how, given the need for competition can one reconcile the fact that the biggest wireless providers are also the biggest providers of fixed wireless, AT&T and Verizon.

McDowell responded that “you cannot have enough competition…since I have been at the Commission, I have looked for ways to create new competition and that obviates regulation on many levels.”

He added, “I would like to see more spectrum audits as long as we manage our expectations ahead of time.” He said that it was very difficult to pin point a time and place to see who is using what spectrum for what purpose.

McDowell said he believed that we are in “The Golden Age of Wireless.” He quoted Marty Cooper, one of the most influential people in the development of the cell phone, in saying that “spectral efficiency doubles every 2.5 years and since the development of radio we are 2 trillion times more spectrally efficient.”

He also added that with the increased use of smartphones there might be a current efficiency gap, but this tension creates more incentives to use the airwaves even more efficiently.

The spectrum efficiency discussion lead to the question of the use of white spaces. McDowell again commended the agency for their November 2008 decision to approve the use of unlicensed devices for unused spectrum. Kang then turned the discussion towards Google’s role in administering the white spaces database and documenting the gaps between the users and the unused spectrum.

She followed up with a question about whether such a task supposed to be performed by a neutral third party can be accomplished by a company like Google with its own communications interest.

While traditionally such a role would have been handled by a truly neutral party, McDowell believes that Google could handle the task as long as their interests are examined.

Next, Kang asked McDowell why he chose to agree to a Net Neutrality rulemaking proceeding when he felt that there would be no need for a new policy? Would there be a new rule or policy that he would be comfortable with, and how can white spaces solve some of the problems with net neutrality policy?

Since the Net Neutrality proceeding comments are due on January 14, McDowell felt the most important feed back would be hard evidence on whether without these rules there will be a systemic market failure.

He understands that his opponents might fear anticompetitive discrimination on behalf of the operators, but he also explained that few instances of discrimination have been handled through the appropriate FCC procedures.

McDowell said he believed that “the cure for anticompetitive conduct is more competition.” He continued, “we have not yet seen the fruits of the newly auctioned 700Mhz spectrum…WiMAX technologies and white spaces.” With these technologies in place, McDowell believes that the consumers will be fully protected.

McDowell said he was worried about the unforeseen consequences of new regulation. “The new regulation would essentially be a tax, and when you tax you tend to get less out of the service.”

In quoting Ronald Reagan he said “they are those that see something moving and they want to tax it, if it keeps moving they regulate and if stop moving then they subsidize it.” McDowell said he did not want that to happen with the Internet.

On a related note, McDowell was asked whether the FCC has jurisdiction to regulate the internet and more specifically the question of search neutrality. He stated that the proposed rules place all regulation on the network operators and not the application providers; however, he welcomes comment from the public as to whether they believe the FCC has such jurisdiction over the search providers.

McDowell also agreed with the dissent in the 2008 Comcast-BitTorrent ruling because he questions whether congress has given the FCC enough authority to regulate information services in such a way.

While McDowell avoided a question on the Comcast-NBC merger, he did admit that the transition of video from fixed cable and satellite to the internet is an exciting area to watch. McDowell believes that these issues are in their adolescent phases and there are issues between subscription and advertising that the market has yet to figure out.

 Therefore it is his belief that government should allow as much room for free experimentation as long as there are no anticompetitive actions taken.

Finally, McDowell ended his interview by welcoming legislation by Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., to bring more expertise to the FCC and the decision of the Commission to hire their first scholar in residence as a liaison between the Commission and the academic community.

As Deputy Editor, Chris Naoum is curating expert opinions, and writing and editing articles on Broadband Breakfast issue areas. Chris served as Policy Counsel for Future of Music Coalition, Legal Research Fellow for the Benton Foundation and law clerk for a media company, and previously worked as a legal clerk in the office of Federal Communications Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. He received his B.A. from Emory University and his J.D. and M.A. in Television Radio and Film Policy from Syracuse University.

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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