State Of The Net: Blair Levin Tells Us To Not Freak Out Yet On Obama's Broadband Plan

from the benefit-of-the-doubt? dept

While we certainly think that having a better broadband policy in the US is an important step, there's a difference between just saying that you have a broadband policy, and actually implementing a plan that helps improve broadband. The devil's in the details, as they say. And... so far, the details that have come out have suggested that the key elements under discussion look something like a boondoggle for incumbent providers, rather than a truly comprehensive plan to stimulate actual competition in the broadband space.

On Wednesday, I got to attend the Congressional Internet Caucus' State of the Net 2009 conference, where the opening (surprise) speaker, was Blair Levin, one of President Elect Obama's tech transition team. In his remarks, he clearly tried to respond to these criticisms raised by us and others by suggesting (1) that the team is still tossing up a variety of ideas and nothing has been concluded and (2) there are two elements that need to be considered: (a) a short-term "stimulus" plan to get the economy churning and create new jobs and (b) a more comprehensive broadband policy. From this, he suggested that the first part -- the "stimulus" part -- would have to involve "existing structures" (i.e., the incumbents), but that was only a piece and "not the whole puzzle" or "just an inning, not the whole ballgame."

While it's a relief that the tech team recognizes there is a larger issue, I think it's important to keep hammering home the point, because this has all the warning signs of a "best laid plans..." situation. The initial "bailout" (and the ISP representatives keep making sure to say "it's a buildout, not a bailout") as an initial stimulus just seems ripe for abuse. The incumbent players have almost no record of either playing fair on these issues or delivering what they promise to deliver. And, why should they? There's been no downside to simply accepting the subsidies and not delivering. And, of course, after that happens, there may be the next crisis to deal with. Do we ever get that really comprehensive broadband plan? Remember, President Bush also had big plans to provide a massive broadband policy... and that went nowhere.

While I understand the point that Levin is making for separating out the short term action and the long term action, it's still not clear that the short term strategy makes sense and will do what it's supposed to do. And then there are questions about whether or not the long term strategy will ever actually show up. Combined... you have to wonder if we're just hearing a lot of hype about nothing. I'm sure Levin and the rest of the team are earnest in what they want to do. From what I've seen from the folks working on the transition, there are an awful lot of really smart, dedicated and sincere folks involved. So that's (at least) a good first step. But going from there to actually implementing something real that's useful? That's a big step, and we've heard enough vague promises over the years not to take such a promise at face value. Hopefully, we'll be surprised, and both the short and long term plans will make sense -- but considering how many times the "best laid plans" of government officials have gone off the road and into a ditch, it's hard to provide the benefit of the doubt without at least a little more info on what's really happening.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 15th, 2009 @ 5:54am

    Once they get a short-term cash flow....

    The history of this type of program is that it is set up as a short-term stimulus and turns into a divine right for a subsidy after it gets started.

    We still have short-term fixes hanging around from the great depression including the tax we pay every month to provide phone service in rural areas.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 15th, 2009 @ 6:11am

    Best Laid Plans

    Didn't the telcos already receieve financial incentives to provide better broadband coverage, and what happened to that plan. Certainly we do not want to try that again, right ?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    AJ, Jan 15th, 2009 @ 6:22am

    any and all

    We've seen time and again... any government stimulus or bailout will be abused. Already the crooks are scheming to get their hands on this windfall money. Government needs to get out of the way and not muck it up further. Think Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, etc etc etc

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    UNKN, Jan 15th, 2009 @ 6:27am

    Don't lump them all together

    Not everyone in ACE or FEMA gets rich from scheming, remember that.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    hegemon13, Jan 15th, 2009 @ 6:27am

    Re: Once they get a short-term cash flow....

    Actually, the USF was discontinued a year or so ago. Still, your point is solid.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    :Lobo Santo, Jan 15th, 2009 @ 6:34am


    Umm, rarely attribute to malice that which can be explained by ignorance?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Xiera, Jan 15th, 2009 @ 6:51am


    I'm not sure this kind of a short-term plan would really work. The argument is that the "incumbents" would create jobs, but I don't think that would be the case. There would be a brief spike, maybe, to lay the infrastructure (though I'm fairly sure it already exists), but I don't think we'd see the new jobs last. It'd be a case of treating the symptoms without targeting the actual problem.

    The benefits of competition are far greater. More companies with more of a presence in more states means more, likely permanent, jobs. There may be a problem here as well. I hesitate to assume that this would be the case, but I would think a government-backed company (even if it's a new and relatively small company) would have a distinct advantage in the industry.

    Perhaps the solution here actually *is* legislation -- not letting the Comcasts and Coxs have state-wide monopolies (they seem to as far as cable goes in some states, though not sure if this is true of all states). I don't have a solution, but I don't think throwing money at this problem will fix it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    Dave (profile), Jan 15th, 2009 @ 7:51am

    Short sightedness.

    I have no hope anymore. Everything that these 'leaders' are doing are killing any chance we have of a speedy recovery in this financial mess. Not everyone in America values broadband, simply making it available to them [cheaper] won't make them demand it either. Talk about short sightedness.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    GeneralEmergency (profile), Jan 15th, 2009 @ 8:58am

    The GeneralEmergency Stimulus Plan.

    Lets get the economy going again!

    1) 5 Year suspension of Copyright. All pending copyright cases in the courts...put on hold. No retroactive filings later.

    2) 5 Year suspension of Patent Violation cases in the courts. No retroactive filings if Patent resumed in its current form.

    3) 5 Year reduction of Capitol Gains taxes to 10%.

    4) 5 Year suspension of Corporate income taxes.

    5) All employees of Local, State and Federal taxation entities must wear hats at work that say, "I'm a big, fat stupid head!"

    OK, that last one was apparently a day-dream that slipped into my list by accident. Sorry.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    chris (profile), Jan 15th, 2009 @ 9:17am

    Re: Malice?

    Umm, rarely attribute to malice that which can be explained by ignorance?

    it's not malice, just greed. the telcos don't want to hurt us, the just want to steal all of our money.

    so far, they haven't realized that they have enough cash to raise their own private armies to take the money by force.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    chris (profile), Jan 15th, 2009 @ 9:21am

    Re: The GeneralEmergency Stimulus Plan.

    with all the money invested in the copyright system, you would see #5 implemented long before the other 4.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 15th, 2009 @ 9:38am

    Pay as you go

    I think the best way to solve this problem is for Obama's team to pick vital areas of development around the country and then ask for bids from the incumbent providers. Once a bid has been accepted, the government should then only pay for work that gets done. Since the government is paying for the infrastructure, it should then be available to all providers at a flat rate that should go back to paying down the deficit.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Karl Bode, Jan 15th, 2009 @ 10:14am

    "From this, he suggested that the first part -- the "stimulus" part -- would have to involve "existing structures" (i.e., the incumbents), but that was only a piece and "not the whole puzzle" or "just an inning, not the whole ballgame."

    I THINK by "existing structures" he's talking about things like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s tiny Rural Development Broadband Loan and Loan Guarantee Program.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Davey, Jan 15th, 2009 @ 10:44am

    Re "pay as you go"

    Contracting for specific work and then opening the network to all bidders sounds like the best plan I've heard. Treat the telcos/cablecos as contractors on specific work who get paid when the job is done to spec.

    The problem seems less with the politics/economics than with tech in this case. Does anybody know enough about the options to invest billions in one of them? Is running cable into unserved/underserved areas the way to go, or should we be betting on wifi, satellite, cell transmitter upgrades, net-over-power-lines, or something else? Maybe the first phase of any large program has to be a series of small local pilot programs, impatient though that will make a lot of customers.

    In any case, it astounds me that we're still hearing the "wisdom of the market" crap in the current environment. News flash: there's no such thing. Government will have to be involved. The sticking point is, it will only succeed if it goes more slowly and cautiously than any of us would like.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    rural resident, Jan 15th, 2009 @ 12:18pm

    Re: Best Laid Plans

    Actually, I live in a mostly rural area of Nebraska, and the local telco (Windstream) has done a great job of getting DSL rolled out to almost all the towns around here - even towns of 100-200 people. I don't see much likelihood of competition, because these tend to be high-cost areas in terms of infrastucture.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    DeltaDude, Jan 17th, 2009 @ 1:08pm

    Re: Re "pay as you go"

    Dangerous! Never, never give anybody a blank check. Generate/obtain system install specifications. Generate a detailed and accurate scope of work and then competitively bid the project. Retain knowledgeable inspectors without any conflict of interest and that can't be bought off. Only then do you have any chance of getting your money's worth.

    Incumbents are known for the grossly overpriced everything

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Bob Smith, Jan 17th, 2009 @ 6:52pm

    USDA Telecommunications Program -- A Joke

    WAAAAY before giving more money to the USDA Telecommunications Program, think long and hard and with a critical eye.

    For the last 12 years, the Telecommunications Program has been staffed with Washington D.C. lifelong bureaucrats, NOT experienced telecommunications professionals who have years of “actual” management, operational or engineering background working in the telecommunications industry.
    If you want to give Broadband expansion the best chance for success using the USDA Telecommunications Program, hire and put those in charge that have real life experience in the industry they oversee.

    Don’t allow ladder climbing bureaucrats who perpetuate outdated standards and regulations developed years ago or by people who have never been responsible for a “real life” telecommunications. It’s the taxpayer’s money and it should be run by those that know it best not, a government employee who has been there the longest.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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