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Remarks of Assistant Secretary Strickling at the PLI/FCBA 27th Annual Telecommunications Policy & Regulation Institute

Remarks by Lawrence E. Strickling, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information
Practising Law Institute/Federal Communications Bar Association's 27th Annual Telecommunications Policy & Regulation Institute
Washington, D.C.
December 10, 2009

– As Prepared for Delivery –

A little more than a year ago, an intrepid band of brothers and sisters gathered in a set of cubicles at the Obama transition offices to chart a new course for technology and communications policy for the United States.  The group started with a ten-page technology and innovation plan that many of us had worked to develop during the Presidential campaign and they transformed it into the ambitious—I might even say audacious—set of plans that have been rolling out over the course of this year.

It was a daunting set of issues that challenged the group:

  • How to create a transparent and connected democracy and engage our citizens in a new form of participation in their government;
  • How to deploy a modern communications infrastructure that would bring the benefits of broadband to all Americans;
  • And how to employ technology and innovation to solve our nation’s most pressing problems in education, health care and the environment.

But just had been proven day after day on the campaign, it is pretty amazing what a relatively small group of committed people can accomplish when given the opportunity.  And now, many of them are working hard every day to bring these ideas and plans to reality.

Julius Genachowski, whose overall vision of how technology could transform this nation had propelled the campaign from the start, provided overall direction to the group and the incomparable Blair Levin offered the day-to-day management of the team.  Julius and Blair of course are now at the FCC, completing work on the National Broadband Plan on top of the already existing dockets that command the Commission’s attention. 

A year ago, Aneesh Chopra, Beth Noveck and Andrew McLaughlin, along with Vivek Kundra, were focusing on how to use communications technologies to open up and reform government. Today, Aneesh is now our nation’s first Chief Technology Officer, assisted by Andrew and Beth, and Vivek is the Federal government’s Chief Information Officer. Together, they have been rolling out open government initiatives all year, ranging from to this week’s announcement of the Open Government Directive, which directs each executive department and agency to implement the principles of transparency, participation and collaboration in its operations.

Phil Verveer and Alec Ross at the State Department have been exploring how to use modern communications technologies as a tool of foreign policy around the world. Others of us, including Jim Halpert, Jon Liebovitz and Larry Irving, seized the opportunity presented by the need for an economic stimulus plan to work on the legislative proposals that formed the basis for the broadband grant programs established in the Recovery Act last February.
Tom Kalil and Jim Kohlenberger at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, along with Susan Crawford and Peter Swire at the National Economic Council, provided an overall conceptual framework for all of these activities in the President’s Innovation Plan, announced this past September.

The hallmark of the innovation plan is the recognition that the foundation for durable, sustainable economic growth must be innovation and investment. First, we must invest in the building blocks of innovation; second, we must promote competitive markets that spur productive entrepreneurship; and third, we must catalyze breakthroughs needed for national priorities such as clean energy, health information technology and advanced vehicle technology.

Critical to the first of these efforts--investing in the building blocks of innovation--is the development of an advanced technology ecosystem, which includes providing all Americans affordable broadband access.  Just as important as economic development, an advanced technology ecosystem is critical to ensuring the full and free exchange of information through an open Internet where citizens can freely express themselves and learn from information offered by others wherever they live.

And that is where we at NTIA come in as we play an active role to implement the president’s innovation strategy and to look to the future of Internet and telecommunications policy.
But at the start of the year, we had some unfinished business that commanded most of the agency’s attention—the transition to digital television. 

NTIA’s responsibility was to administer the converter box coupon program and at the beginning of the year, the program faced a stiff challenge when the initial funding limit was reached and the program built up a large waiting list for coupons. There were also concerns that folks were not prepared for the conversion, all of which led Congress to grant an extension of the transition deadline and to appropriate additional dollars for coupons and education programs. 

Today, we can say that the coupon program and the efforts to educate consumers were a tremendous success and that, combined with the tireless work of Michael Copps and FCC staff to handle the technical issues of the transition, the overall transition went very well. Well over 99% of households are now equipped to receive digital television transmissions and in a survey by the Consumer Electronics Association, nearly 80% of consumers rated the coupon program as excellent or good.  Consumers redeemed about 35 million coupons at a total cost of nearly $1.4 billion.

Now, I can claim no credit for NTIA’s performance as I did not arrive at the agency until after the transition date in June but we owe a big debt of gratitude to Deputy Administrator Anna Gomez and the career staff led by Bernie McGuire-Rivera and Anita Wallgren.

Next up for NTIA was the challenge to implement, with our partners at USDA’s Rural Utilities Service, the broadband expansion programs created by the Recovery Act in February.  In five short months, NTIA and RUS designed and implemented the largest grant program our organization has ever overseen. Led by Mark Seifert, our dedicated staff was holding public meetings less than a month after the Recovery Act was signed into law and we started accepting the first applications a less than five months later.

The level of interest in this program has been extraordinary. The two agencies received almost 2,200 applications requesting nearly $28 billion in funding for proposed broadband projects in every state and territory--nearly seven times the total amount of funding available in the first round. Congress has been interested as well, as four committees have held oversight hearings on the program just since September. 

What do we want to accomplish with this program?  Given the high level of interest in the broadband stimulus funding, we are trying to ensure that we get the most bang for every grant dollar. 

To us, this means extending broadband service into the unserved and underserved parts of the country.

It means focusing on making sure communities have adequate bandwidth coming in to the community and that the key anchor institutions—the schools, libraries, community colleges and hospitals—are connected—we call this the “comprehensive communities” concept.

It means making sure that these projects are built by people who know how to build this type of infrastructure and that the projects will still be serving their communities years after the federal dollars run out. 

Fortunately, we have had many applications filed in round 1 that meet these criteria. But we’re already starting to think about round 2.  And we want to continue to explore the potential of comprehensive communities—in particular, we want to push people to be more creative and more inclusive. 

What do I mean? First, we really like the potential of public/private partnerships to really understand and account for the community needs in a project area.  It’s not just enough to build fiber that passes anchor institutions—we want to know how those institutions will be connected to the fiber. We want the project team to reach out to all the key anchors in a community and not limit a project to just libraries or just schools. And we think project applicants can do more to include the companies that will offer services to households and businesses in the project. 

The highest quality applications are the ones that have taken a truly comprehensive view of the communities to be served and have engaged as many key members of the communities as possible in developing the projects. We want to see more of these projects in round 2 and for those of you in the audience that have worked on applications, I challenge you to respond to this message and work all that much harder to bring us applications that will serve communities for years to come. 

In addition to the infrastructure grants, our program also includes funding to expand public computer centers, to increase the level of broadband adoption and to develop the National Broadband Map. Each of these are important areas in their own right as well.

On adoption, we’re dealing with the issue of folks who have infrastructure in their community but they’re not subscribed. How do we deal with that problem in terms of first understanding why they don’t subscribe and then creating a program and funding a program that responds to that? We’re finding that it’s an education issue, it’s a comfort issue, people are intimidated by this technology. It’s also very much a financial issue, but in our case we can only fund a onetime expenditure of dollars; the universal service fund reform may take up the question of perhaps continuing subsidies of the monthly cost of broadband. But we’re going to look to see how you spend a dollar today and move adoption along in the community.

The National Broadband Map will be the first comprehensive national effort to collect information on where broadband is available and where it isn’t. States have tried doing this individually over the last few years and each has a story to tell about their experience. We are trying to take the best approach and learn from the best practices of the states that engaged in this and create a standardized national map that will be available in February of 2011.

As we look forward to 2010, we see a very busy year at NTIA.

We’ll have the second round of broadband grants to award; we’ll be working hard with the FCC to get the national broadband map designed; and we’ll no doubt have a number of initiatives to undertake based on the conclusions and recommendations of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan.

One area that the FCC has already identified as a priority is the need for additional spectrum for mobile broadband services.  Mobile broadband use is exploding in the United States and it is clear that we will need to undertake a serious effort to determine how best to meet this rapidly growing demand.   NTIA, as the manager of federal spectrum users, plays a significant role on spectrum issues and we will be active in the year to come in a number of key areas:

  • In anticipation of Congress’ passing a spectrum inventory bill, we are already evaluating how we can collect and display information on Federal uses of spectrum to educate policy makers and the public on this important resource.  
  • We have re-engaged the Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee, headed by Bryan Tramont and Dale Hatfield, and we look forward to the contributions the many experts on that panel will deliver in the coming months on key policy issues.
  • Another era of emphasis is spectrum sharing and specifically, how do we get more and more users and more and more types of devices to share the same spectrum.  We have been operating a spectrum sharing test-bed pilot project at our lab in Boulder, Colorado.  Next year we will move into the next phase of the project to analyze cognitive radio devices.

Longer term, I am looking to refocus the policy work of NTIA on Internet policy.  Today’s policy challenges in the Internet arena arise from the fact that the Internet has grown from literally, an academic exercise to a central and indispensable feature of life on Main Street.

When the Internet was first commercialized fifteen years ago, the primary government imperative was just to get out of the way to encourage its growth. Now that the Internet is a vital platform for commerce, politics, education and science, the Federal government has an enhanced responsibility to address issues such as security, privacy, affordable broadband access, and intellectual property protection.

Many executive branch agencies are involved in Internet policy and of course, the FCC and the FTC have important roles to play on various aspects of the Internet.  Each of these agencies brings their expertise to bear on specific issues such as cybersecurity, consumer protection, and the like.  At NTIA, we do not propose to supplant or replace any of those efforts but we do think we can offer, in our role as the President’s principal advisor on communications and information issues, a place at which all these issues can be synthesized and prioritized.

Internet policy has gone through several phases:

  • Internet Policy 1.0 (1992-2000) In the 1990’s, when the first commercial Internet service providers began providing commercial service and the World Wide Web was created, the government imperative was to seek unrestrained growth of the Internet – the more the better. This was the right policy for the U.S. and the right message to send to the rest of the world.
  • Internet Policy 2.0 (2001-2009): After the turn of the century and for the last decade, the Internet experienced tremendous economic growth and social innovation, but policy issues emerged that have not been effectively addressed:
    • Privacy: More and more personal data is being collected and there is a growing unease with the ‘notice & choice’ model – do you really read those privacy policies or just click away at the ‘yes, I agree…’ in order to get on with what you want to buy, read or post?
    • Security: Individual users and large enterprises are required to devote more time and money to addressing security threats.
    • Copyright infringement: We’ve seen great innovation in the development of new business models (i.e., iTunes) but piracy of intellectual property has also grown, with negative impacts on traditional content industries and deepening signs of disregard for copyright law.

It’s now time for Internet Policy 3.0 to respond to all the social change being driven by the growth of the Internet.  We have much higher expectations of the Internet:

  • It’s not just a geeky curiosity, but the central nervous system of our information economy and society.
  • And this Administration is depending on the Internet as a platform for innovation to support key National Priorities:
    • Health care reform (health IT to increase quality of care and lower cost)
    • Energy efficiency (smart grid)
    • Education reform

As NTIA moves forward on these Internet Policy 3.0 issues, the key will be finding the right balance on a number of core issues.  At NTIA and the Department of Commerce, we will be teeing up the following questions:

  • Privacy policy: How can we enable the development of innovative new services and applications that will make intensive use of personal information, while, at the same time, assuring the users are protected from harm and unwanted intrusion into their privacy?
  • Child protection and freedom of expression: As more and more children go online for educational and social activity, protection is vital. How do we assure proper targeting of law enforcement resources to address serious crime and while remembering that the most important line of defense against harmful content is the well informed and engaged parent or teacher?
  • Cybersecurity:  How do we meet the security challenge posed by the global Internet, which will require increased law enforcement efforts and private sector technology innovation, yet respect citizen privacy and the protection of our civil liberties?
  • Internet governance:  In our role administering the Federal government’s relationships with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), how do we ensure that ICANN serves the public interest and conducts its activities with the openness and transparency that the global Internet community demands?  Earlier in the fall, NTIA executed a new Affirmation of Commitments with ICANN to establish what we hope will be a long-lasting framework for the technical coordination of the Internet naming and numbering system.  I will participate in the first of the administrative reviews called for in that document next year and we will work to ensure that the commitments agreed to by ICANN are carried out in full.  We’ll also continue to support the mission of the Internet Governance Forum to provide the opportunity for multi-stakeholder discussion of all of these issues.

All of these activities will engage other government agencies, both in the Department of Commerce and throughout the Federal government.  We will also engage the Internet constituencies in the commercial world, civil society and academia and I encourage all of you to participate in these efforts.

When I started my remarks, I told you what two dozen people have been able to accomplish in just a few months.  Just imagine what we could accomplish if everyone would engage on these issues next year.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak to you today.  I would like to close my remarks by expressing my thanks to everyone on staff at NTIA for the incredible work effort they have all made this year and also to FCBA for all the fine work it does, not just in serving the communications bar with its educational programs but also for the significant charitable work it performs.