An Open Letter To Blair Levin On The Subject of National Broadband Public Notices

Dear Blair:

I surrender! I admit defeat. I cry “uncle.” You win. Despite my earlier doubts, I am now prepared to say the National Broadband Plan process is the most open, transparent, comprehensive, bestest and wonderfullest proceeding ever in the entire history of the FCC since passage of the Communications Act of 1934! Just please, please PLEASE no more public notices. [break off into uncontrolled sobbing]

The occasion of my pathetic surrender notice is the release today of the FCC’s 26th Public Notice seeking comment on a specific subject in the National Broadband Plan — specifically, on whether to go ahead with the plan to try to reclaim more broadcast spectrum for possible auction. (full list here). God knows I love spectrum policy. Heck, my wife complains you can’t shut me up on the subject. I also admire what Stephen Colbert would call your “giant antenna arrays” for being willing to take on the broadcasters and look at what has long been considered a third rail of communications policy.

More seriously, I get what you are trying to do here and commend you for it. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which requires the FCC to create a National Broadband Plan by next February, requires you to look at an enormously huge set of complicated and interrelated issues. Drafting the plan is one of these problems so enormous that a sane person can go crazy trying to figure out where to even start. Every single question or area of focus impacts every other area of focus. That’s what makes this an ecology rather than simply a market or a technology.

So you’ve proceeded in a fairly logical and straightforward fashion, and one designed to maximize transparency (which, in turn, increases buy-in and the legitimacy of the outcome). You started with a fairly general public notice and a lot of workshops on general subjects like “what to do about deployment.” As patterns and interesting questions emerge, you’ve had follow up workshops, generated reports, and released more detailed Public Notices with ever more precise questions and requests for data. This has been supplemented with an e-government and “crowd sourcing” initiative that makes use of modern collaborative tools to do further outreach and bring in more data. You’ve stuck firmly to your line of focusing on facts not philosophy, and you’ve given regular updates so that the Commissioners and the public can follow what’s been happening.

And for us policy wonks, it has been something like being a kid in a candy store with all the new data coming in and genuine interest on the part of staff to review data and discuss it on the merits. This, in turn, has encouraged many parties to bring substantive data and arguments to the table rather than simply rehash the same thin gruel of talking points over and over. In all seriousness, you (and everyone else involved) should be proud of your accomplishments on the process side.

But, like a kid in a candy store, we are starting to get something of a stomach ache here. Because the plan is due February 17, 2010, the time frames on these Public Notices are very short. Worse, because you have now pared things down from the very high-level general questions to the much more interesting and specific questions, the Public Notices require significant expenditure of resources and time to develop meaningful responses. It does no good to ask very interesting questions if no one has time to give meaningful answers. This, in turn, runs the risk of diminishing the benefits of an excellent process. Too many Public Notices advantages the companies that have the resources to continue to respond at the rate required. As with all things, there are trade offs between having a process designed to solicit the best information and a process that allows for meaningful participation for everyone.

I would like to humbly suggest that the National Broadband Plan has now reached the point of diminishing returns. You should have enough to make recommendations and determine general direction and identify what specific proceedings to initiate when you release the plan. You also need to sit everyone down in a huddle and write the bloody thing, and get the Chairman and the Commissioners to sign on. That will take time. And while you have kept them informed as the process went on, we all know that they are still going to want lots of opportunity to review and offer/demand edits.

To conclude, Ecclesiastes warns “ Beware my son, for the making of many books has no end, and studying overmuch is a weariness of flesh.” (12:12). You and the rest of the FCC team on this really have done a kick ass and monumental job on something that was very, very easy to screw up. Time to wrap it up and set the stage for the boffo ending on February 17, 2010.

Stay tuned . . . .

One Comment

  1. Well said. And I can say with some confidence that the folks inside the FCC are feeling the same way you are. To paraphrase an insider who recently said of the NBP “The clay is all on the wheel, now is the time to make the vessel.”

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