Monday, June 25, 2012

Blair Levin's Big Bandwidth Vision

I want to commend to you a recent speech by my long-time friend Blair Levin, the former head of the FCC's National Broadband Plan task force and now the head of a project (of which he is the prime mover) called Gig.U. At the time of Gig.U's launch in August 2011, I said in a blog post: "All in all, it looks like a very worthwhile venture, one that, if successful, could bring many benefits, not only to the university communities involved but to the nation at large." 
Blair's speech has a mouthful of a title, "Upgrading America: Achieving a Strategic Bandwidth Advantage and a Psychology of Bandwidth Abundance to Drive High-Performance Knowledge Exchange." A big title – but a speech with a big idea, consistent with the large ambition of the Gig.U project. 
At the outset of the speech, Blair states: "What I want to do today, however, is to argue that over the next few years, the prime mission of communications policy ought to be to eliminate bandwidth as a constraint on innovation and productivity." In the remainder of the address, he does an admirable job of arguing that bringing "hubs of huge bandwidth" to places – like university and research communities – where such "excessive bandwidth" will be utilized in ways that optimize productivity and creativity for all, is an important goal. 
While I may not agree with every aspect of Blair's address, I do readily commend the vision he articulates and the seriousness of thought – and the passion – that he brings to the subject. 
Blair acknowledges forthrightly that the purpose of the speech is not to catalog policies, but rather "to sell the primacy of the mission." That's fair enough. 
But, of course, the policies ultimately matter. Towards the very end of the speech, Blair says: "We can, like Korea, mandate spending billions to upgrade everywhere to drive more effective use of the network, or we can upgrade in those places we know we have, and are likely to do so in the future, create the kinds of improvements that scale everywhere and create new market forces that incent the private sector to invest in a broader upgrade." 
In my view, reliance on market forces will provide the incentives for the private sector to get most of the way, if not all of the way, towards building out the infrastructure that is necessary to achieve of Blair's big bandwidth vision. Government possibly may have a test-bed-like role to play, but, if so, that role should be carefully defined and limited. Reliance on market forces, not government strictures, are much more likely to provide for the flexibility and responsiveness upon which creativity and innovation rest. 
So, the policy discussion is always relevant, and it matters. But, for now, it is enough to commend to you Blair's speech as he goes about trying "to sell the primacy of the mission." It's well worth reading, and thinking about.