Blair Levin Keynote at CLIC Austin: The BDAC, 5G and Cities: The Power and Perils of Asymmetry

On April 30, 2018, at CLIC’s event in Austin, Blair Levin, Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the  Brookings Institute’s Metropolitan Policy Project, gave a powerful keynote speech focusing on the FCC’s BDAC process which included his prediction that its primary result will likely be the asymmetrical transfer of wealth from the public to private enterprises with no associated public obligations for that benefit. We provide an excerpt of his written speech below, with the full text linked at the end.  

The BDAC, 5G and Cities: The Power and Perils of Asymmetry

 Blair Levin,  Brookings Institution, Metropolitan Policy Project 

The most significant meta-theme about governance in the United States today is that the federal government is dysfunctional and disrespected but that local governments are responsive, pro-active, effective and respected in building communities that improve the lives of their residents.

I see that not just in the press and academic writings, but also in my own experience in dealing with the federal and scores of local governments.

It also shows up in the polling data.  More than two-thirds of members of both parties express trust in local governments while the number of Americans expressing trust in the federal government is below 20%. Arguably, as former Indianapolis Mayor and now Harvard Professor Stephen Goldsmith argues, such numbers understate the trust citizens should place in local governments.  No one is saying the same for the federal government.

This causes me to believe, both as a philosophical and practical matter, that a key to moving this country forward is to give local governments more authority and freedom.

This puts me at odds with my twice-former employer, the FCC.

Today I am going to discuss the relationship between the FCC and cities and make  several policy suggestions for accomplishing goals stated by both sides.  I will also describe why cities should just ignore the FCC—other than to sue it—but that cities should develop a more productive relationship with carriers in helping accelerate the deployment of next generation networks to their residents and enterprises.

But what I am really going to discuss is the power and perils of asymmetry.

Before I get to that, I would like to note two historic achievements of the current FCC.

First, this the first FCC that has defined joke writing as an integral part of the deliberative policy process.

You might think I am joking.

But this FCC has, not once but twice, denied Freedom of Information requests for information about joke videos involving Chairman Pai on the grounds that the providing the information would impair the FCC’s, and I quote, “deliberative process.”

I have a personal conflict here, having participated in writing jokes for five different Chairman.

I would hate for early drafts to ever go public.  You can’t really write good jokes without writing a bunch of bad ones.  Believe me.  My personal ratio of bad to good is at least 50:1.

Nonetheless, despite many hours in the writers’ rooms’ session, I don’t recall any deliberative policy process.

Of course, my memory might have been impaired.  As the gospel of the writers’ rooms note, the jokes don’t write themselves.  Jim Beam does.

So while I am sympathetic to the FCC trying to keep those emails private, I wish the FCC lawyers had come clean and responded to the FOIA requests by admitting the videos were really not very funny.  Therefore, it simply is not in the public interest that unbelievably even lamer, earlier drafts of bad jokes ever become public.

But this FCC either believes that joke writing is actually part of its deliberative process or, like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, it believes that words mean whatever they want them to mean.

Which brings us to the second historic accomplishment of this FCC: it is the first FCC to interpret its statutory mandate to say it doesn’t have much legal authority or policy rights to regulate broadcasters, telephone companies, cable companies, or wireless companies.  Instead, its principal regulatory mandate is to regulate another set of enterprises: local governments.

Well, if you have the talent to classify joke writing as part of the deliberative policy process, you certainly have the talent to argue that FCC stands for Federal Constraints on Cities.

And that, in turn, brings us to the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) process.

Its stated, and worthy, goals are to accelerate and broaden deployment of next generation broadband networks, and reduce the digital divide.

Will the process help achieve those goals?

If one ignores the DC rhetoric and focuses on market incentives, the analysis suggests probably not.  Instead, the primary result of the process will likely be to transfer wealth from the public to private enterprises.

If the FCC wanted to, as I will discuss at the end, it could take action to assure that the wealth transfer would not occur unless the deployment and digital divide goals were met.  Instead, however, the BDAC and the FCC will likely adopt a framework in which industry gets all the benefits with no obligations and municipalities get all the costs and no guaranteed benefits…. Read more here.