The Next Act

April 30, 2014  • Blair Levin

Article originally posted on [Insides Sources]. Written by Blair Levin.

Telecommunications policy raises numerous controversial issues but two debates underlay all others: how is the United States doing in international rankings and should Congress rewrite the current communications law? The interplay between these debates raises two questions; one ironic and the other, serious.

The international debate features one side suggesting we are falling behind while the other side, composed of telephone and cable companies and supportive policy experts, argues we’re doing great.  Advocates for the second view are also leading the charge for new legislation.  The ironic question is if we are doing so badly, why change?

I’m not accusing them of hypocrisy; we could be doing great and still need a new bill.  But it does beg the more serious question: what is the problem the legislation is meant to resolve?

The general answer is we should modernize the law.  While not a bad outcome, it is hardly compelling, particularly as a legislative process tends to freeze investment in the sector.  Capital flows to lobbyists, not product innovation.  The question advocates of new legislation should be required to answer is where do we want capital to flow in telecommunications where it is not flowing now?

My own answer comes from the United States National Broadband Plan, which boils down to four strategies for improving broadband performance:

  1. Drive fiber deeper into the network;
  2. Use spectrum more efficiently;
  3. Get everyone on broadband; and
  4. Use the broadband platform to improve government performance

As to fiber, there are signs of progress, including recent announcements by Google and AT&T about increasing their footprint of world-leading fiber networks.  These announcements are largely driven by changes in local policy, and it is not clear that federal legislation is required or even helpful.  With spectrum, Congress already authorized the FCC to reallocate spectrum more efficiently and the executive branch is engaged in similar efforts.  Notably, no advocates for new legislation suggest we are suffering from underinvestment in the wired or wireless sectors.

We have seen less progress, however, with the third and fourth strategies.  While some private efforts, such as the Comcast Internet Essentials and the Google Fiber low cost offerings are praiseworthy, such private actions are unlikely to solve what is a public problem: tens of millions unconnected to and ill-versed in working with the core platform for economic and civic engagement in the 21st Century.

Moreover, government services are still, by and large, an analog enterprise in a digital world.  The problems of revealed part of the problem but the costs and opportunities more extensive than the performance of a single website.  Several years ago, a coalition of Hi-Tech CEOs that proposed how the federal government could save over $1 trillion over ten years by using best practices, particularly with information technology, to improve productivity.  The Obama Administration has moved forward with several laudable efforts, such as with open data and a “New Management Agenda” but both lack the scale and political capital to provide the magnitude of change we need.

How to move forward?  Congress should authorize a Commission to draft a plan for how to use the tools of 21st Century technology to improve government operations. The members would be composed of executives with a record of managing similar technology transitions.  Congress should provide the Commission a broad mandate, including recommendations for benchmarking and improving interactions between the public and government agencies, moving all government services to the more efficient digital platform, improving economic growth through expedited processing and open data, lowering long-term costs through accelerated technology upgrades, and improving the supply chain and procurement process.  Some of the savings should be dedicated to a focused effort to overcome the lack of “digital readiness” that is emerging as the primary barrier keeping people off the Internet.  Further, as services move the digital platform, the value of using it grows, causing more to embrace its use.

The Commission should be structured like the base-closing commission. Congress would have a specified window to debate its recommendations and be required to approve or reject its recommendations on a single up or down vote.

If such legislation were to move forward, capital would increase its flow towards next generation government services.  Americans are proud of our role in developing technologies that have revolutionized how people everywhere communicate, exchange information and improve their lives.  We should aspire to be just as proud about how our government uses that technology to improve how it performs. Instead of working on a bill with an ill-defined upside, Congress would better serve the country by looking at how to simultaneously prepare the rest of our country and our government services for the Information based 21st Century economy.