Monday, February 14, 2011

American Broadband Needs its JFK: The Levin - Settles Debate 02/14/2011 San Francisco - What are these people arguing about? 

For most anyone that gives a fig about the national broadband policy agenda, Blair Levin and Craig Settles would appear at the same end of the spectrum. Both are nationally recognized analysts preaching ubiquitous deployment across the nation. Levin was the lead author, via a staff appointment to the FCC, for the National Broadband Plan. Settles is IMHO the leading advocate in the country today for community networks. 

Why then did the likes of the New America Foundation and leading tech / telecom reporters @gigastacey and @SchatzWSJ indulge these two a week ago today? Why did a roomful of Washington policy wonks show up to listen? Strike that. Washington policy wonks, face it, all need to get real jobs anyway.

Put either Settles or Levin and the likes of a Michelle Bachman Tea Party wing-nut in a cage fight, and I'd buy a ticket. These two, not so much. Against all conventional wisdom though, these guys have been going hammer and tong on each other for about the last 60 days. Go figure.                                                                                                                                                                 

The Smackdown got started by Settles over at GigaOm late last year, as Settles asks a few fundamental questions about the National Broadband Plan. So fundamental that Levin gets real jinky real quick, real defensive like. 

So I get Settles on the horn as the debate thing is coming up, and the guy tells me the country needs a "a JFK like effort on national broadband", and he's going to call for it in this set-to with Blair. He says JFK. He's talking the whole moon program as national model for broadband. Ok, for me that's unfair, he's got me. Now I gotta watch the damned debate.

This whole squabble comes down to the fact that Craig has the temerity to ask The Big Question. Why is the National Broadband Plan -- and by implication the current Federal Communications Commission that gave it to us -- is so long on compromise, so tactical in scope, and so short on vision? Its lacks Big Vision, which is why Settles asks The Big Question. Sure enough, The Big Question drives Blair berserk. He's doing defensive, and doing it badly. I mean, the guy actually says "I'll stop interrupting when you answer my question." Its on the tape. I guess Yale dropped Debate Etiquette when Blair was in New Haven.  

Why not 100 Mpbs as both a national goal and a funding objective? Blair says the latter is not feasible, and the former was probably a mistake. Wow. Why does the National Broadband Plan cosign rural areas of our nation to a lesser standard for delivered speed? Who decided that? It must have been the rural areas of America themselves, 'cuz Blair keeps telling us he talks to "rural guys." He sees them at conventions, all the time.

Blair preaches 4G wireless as the fastest and most economically efficient way to move broadband across the country. He's right, clearly. Why does Blair not however see the equally robust promise of large scale gigabit fiber networks? He tells us they are fine for some institutional uses, but that people don't want 'em. That's his answer. Blair figured it out. He wrote the Plan. The Plan's legit, 'cuz it was all "open and transparent". Who needs Big Vision when you'e got the answers already? Blair of course, 'cuz he's right, 'cuz the Plan is perfect gets to browbeat Craig. He hectors Settles, presses for details: 'Well Craig, how can this happen? Do you really mean that?' It goes on like that.

To a critic, Craig's ideas can have a million flaws at any given time. That's a million reasons not to strive toward a larger and truly national purpose. 'and that's the problem with thinking like that. Name me a vision worth anything that doesn't have flaws, that can't be strangled with a slew of questions. 

A lot of people had questions in the Summer of 1962 too, so many that the Big Vision and the national purpose almost didn't happen. We got there because a young man from Massachusetts, one that some of us still call The President, showed us how to get there even without him. John F. Kennedy showed us the way to get to the moon inside a decade because he talked about a national effort that would involve us all, and benefit us all. He had Big Vision. Through the decades the bureaucracy and the program screw-ups would whittle down that vision, but as a nation we got there.

With the National Broadband Plan the disconnect between President Obama's vision and the realities of the Plan's goals are obvious. The plan is small bore compared to what it could have been. It doesn't reach for some of the key fundamentals that it should, irrespective of how much Blair talks with his "rural guys", and otherwise had all the answers before he got started. So, let's let Blair Levin continue to beat up on Craig Settles in print and in front of every assembly of Beltway wonks we can find. Let's let Levin remain the de facto spokesperson for his plan. Let's let the entrenched interests that never wanted the The Big Vision to begin with continue to control what should be a truly national agenda.

All of that is clearly what Blair and the people that think like him want.

For those of us old enough to remember the New Frontier and its leader, let's be reminded yet again of how far we have drifted from any national vision for anything that matters.  

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” said The President, “because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."
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