Blair Levin, a former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chief of staff who's returned to run the FCC's broadband initiative, and Carlos Kirjner, senior adviser to the FCC chairman, spoke at an informal gathering of about 50 people this morning, organized by Silicon Valley's Churchill Club. Everyone crammed into a cozy conference room at the law offices of Goodwin Proctor to get an update on just what this Broadband Plan includes and why the FCC deems it necessary.
The FCC has to submit the plan to Congress by Feb. 17, and Levin and Kirjner have been soliciting public input, through in-person forums and 27 public notices requesting comment. This being Silicon Valley, both men were quick to mention, repeatedly, how much they view and crave the opinions of the technorati.
It wasn't just a techy kiss-up session, though. The tone was candid as Levin and Kirjner summed up the major areas the Plan is addressing so far:
- The need for more wireless spectrum
- IPTV and other IP-related changes to TV markets
- Developing ways to let users quantify how well broadband is working
- Security and privacy
- "Universalization," bringing broadband to institutions like schools and hospitals
- Lowering broadband costs by addressing issues such as right-of-way
But the broadband plan won't fix every contention that exists around broadband issues. Net neutrality is a good example. It came up in audience Q&A, but Levin and Kirjner said the plan won't be answering that issue simply because that's the job of other people at the FCC.
One audience member raised a more thought-provoking question: Can the broadband plan create some long-reaching infrastructure that will benefit people for decades, the way the national highway system did?
In some ways, it doesn't seem likely.
"We struggle with this a lot, because there are a lot of people saying, 'Be visionary. Be big,'" Levin said. But analysis kills off some big ideas. He cited the FCC's contention, which he said is backed by other studies, that it would cost $350 billion to bring fiber broadband to every American.
In fact, much of the ground the broadband plan will cover will be more practical than glamorous: rights of way and the Universal Service Fund, for instance.
"Fixing Universal Service is something which must be done. It's not sexy," Levin said. "But we're spending $7 billion a year inefficiently."
A more exciting area that the plan will address is the set-top box market. Levin and Kirjner cited disappointment that a retail set-top market hasn't emerged in force; there are only 14 retail set-top models on the market compared with 879 mobile-handset devices, they said.
The part that's likely to get the most attention is the wireless spectrum. There's a pervasive concern that the U.S. is going to run out of spectrum for broadband, and the FCC is trying to develop market-driven ways of making sure spectrum can be allocated where it's needed.
Another audience member was concerned about the lobbying power of big operators like AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), wondering if they'll manage to override any parts of the plan they don't like. Levin addressed that by noting that the FCC will have to do a sell job on the plan, since ideally, it's not going to be 100 percent pleasing to any particular entity.
"There are parts of this plan that AT&T is going to like and there are parts it's not going to like," Levin said.
— Craig Matsumoto, West Coast Editor, Light Reading