Keynote Address by Assistant Secretary Strickling at Silicon Flatirons Conference

Topics/Subtopics: 
February 11, 2013

Keynote Address by Lawrence E. Strickling
Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information
Silicon Flatirons Center Conference on
The Digital Broadband Migration:
The Future of Internet-Enabled Innovation
Boulder, Colorado
February 11, 2013

- As Prepared for Delivery –

Today, as we are entering the second term of the Obama Administration, I would like to talk about some of the key trends and issues we as policymakers will have to deal with for the next four years.  My focus is the agenda at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, so I will not be addressing some of the very difficult regulatory issues discussed yesterday, such as the transition from circuit-switched to Internet Protocol Networks.

Those of you who have heard me speak at previous Silicon Flatirons Conferences know that I like to frame my comments with a theme.  In 2010, I talked about how important the concept of trust was to the development of the Administration’s policies on Internet governance – the idea that it is imperative for the sustainability and continued growth of the Internet that we preserve the trust of all actors on the Internet.  From that basic value, we have been building policies on Consumer privacy, cybersecurity, the protection of online intellectual property, and Internet governance, all of which will continue to be important issues for the next four years.

My theme today is sharing.  Isn’t it interesting that we can reduce complex public policy issues to values we were taught as children in nursery school?  In this era of financial belt-tightening, when we are constantly faced with the challenge of making progress and advancing policy within the resources we have, applying the idea of sharing offers us some hope of meeting our goals and needs.

One area where the concept of sharing is playing an important role is spectrum.  As we concluded a year ago, and as affirmed by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology last summer, the old method of clearing spectrum of federal users and then making it available for the exclusive use of commercial providers is not sustainable.  We have moved the systems that are easy to move.  To continue this method of spectrum reallocation costs too much and takes too long.  Just as important is the fact that the opportunities to find spectrum to which we can relocate federal operations are dwindling rapidly.

If we are to meet the President’s goal of finding 500 megahertz of spectrum to repurpose for commercial broadband service, we need a new tool in addition to relocation.  We will continue to search for opportunities to relocate systems when it makes economic sense to do so and when we have spectrum to which to move the federal operation.  But we need to find opportunities for federal agencies and commercial users to share the spectrum.

We have launched a very substantial effort to meet this challenge.  Last year, through our Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee, we organized five working groups made up of representatives from industry and federal agencies to evaluate all the different uses in the 1755-1850 megahertz spectrum band and determine the fastest, most cost-effective way forward to allow for commercial use of this 95 megahertz of spectrum.

For some systems, traditional relocation will be the recommendation.  Systems such as point-to-point microwave circuits are relatively straightforward to move and we have spectrum where these systems can be relocated.  In other cases such as satellite earth stations, defining geographic exclusion or coordination zones to protect the earth stations may then allow commercial entry in large parts of the country not affected by such zones.  But in addition, we have added a third option to the discussions – the possibility that industry and the federal agencies can both use spectrum in the same geographic area through the use of today’s new technologies.  If federal systems and commercial operations can co-exist in the same spectrum band, the result will be more efficient use of that spectrum.

I have been impressed by the level of public/private cooperation that has occurred in the working groups.  As with any new process, the groups have run into some administrative issues, such as the sharing of confidential data that have needed resolution.  But if this process proves successful, it can serve as the basis for the review of other bands below 3000 megahertz, particularly those with radar systems, with the goal of continuing to find additional spectrum for commercial broadband services.

A second area of priority for us is the expansion of broadband access and adoption.  Last week, the Federal Communications Commission hosted an important meeting of the Joint Federal-State Conference on Advanced Services that focused on the issue of broadband adoption.  Today, broadband speeds of at least 3 megabits per second are available from wireline providers to about 98 percent of the population.  But only about 68 percent of households subscribe to broadband service at home.

In the Recovery Act, Congress directed NTIA to provide $250 million in grants for sustainable broadband adoption and $200 million in grants to develop or expand public computer centers in libraries and community centers.  These projects have been very successful.  Our grantees have delivered over 9.9 million hours of training to 2.8 million participants.  These efforts have generated more than half a million new subscribers.  Our grantees have installed nearly 39,000 computer workstations in 2600 public computer centers located in 1500 communities.

As our grantees have tackled the challenge of increasing the level of adoption, we have learned a lot about the barriers to adoption and the strategies that work the best to surmounting these barriers.  The reasons people most often give for not subscribing to broadband service is that they do not need or are not interested in broadband, that it costs too much and that they lack an adequate computer to use online.

A key learning reported by our grantees is that we cannot solve the adoption gap by focusing on only one of the barriers.  A successful program must address all the major barriers in a comprehensive fashion.  Those programs that combine digital literacy training with a low-cost computer and discounted broadband service have reported that a substantial number of persons going through the program end up subscribing to broadband at home.

A second key learning is that a successful project must tailor its program to the specific needs of the community, and the individual and must provide a personal connection from the program to the people being trained.  The paths to adoption depend on demographics such as ethnicity, income and education level and on everyday realities such as work schedules and family obligations.  Forging personal connections with persons being trained means understanding how individuals will find the training relevant to them and ensuring that participants see concrete results from each training session.

Our grant programs are winding down this year.  Given the tight budget conditions, we do not expect Congress to be able to provide more federal dollars for broadband adoption.  So our challenge is how do we reach the millions of non-adopting households with the type of personal, individualized training necessary to get folks to subscribe to broadband services?

It’s going to require a sharing of resources, not spectrum in this case, but of knowledge and expertise.  Through our broadband grants and the support of industry and philanthropic organizations, there is now a network of skilled and knowledgeable experts across the country.  We need to carry forward the types of creative, comprehensive approaches to adoption that have documented, positive outcomes.  Beyond that, we need to create a multiplier effect in these projects.  We need to build a culture where people being trained are encouraged or feel an obligation to use that knowledge and help train their family members or neighbors in their communities.  One of our grantees, the Foundation for California Community Colleges, is doing just that.  The foundation is distributing computers and providing training to mostly Latino students enrolled in math, engineering and science achievement programs at local community colleges.  What is ingenious about this project is that all participating students provide a minimum of twelve hours of computer training in their community, sharing their knowledge to train family members or friends.

If we are going to reach the millions of non-adopting households with personal, individualized training, it is going to take many of these sorts of creative, force-multiplying ideas.  We have smart and dedicated people across the country who are committed to shrinking the adoption gap.  It is our responsibility in the government to help organize these experts to share their knowledge and creativity to keep moving the needle on adoption.

The third and last area I want to talk about today in the theme of sharing is the multistakeholder process for Internet policymaking, both here in the United States and internationally.

The multistakeholder process offers many benefits, many of which I have discussed in my speeches here the last three years.  One key benefit of multistakeholder processes is that they can provide a vehicle to engage all interested parties.  Such parties can include industry, civil society, government, technical and academic experts and even the public.  Contrast this approach with more traditional telecommunications regulatory processes, which, by their very construct, have a more limited set of stakeholders and are often designed to limit direct participation, or at least make it difficult for others to participate.  Top-down regulatory models too often can fall prey to rigid procedures, bureaucracy, capture by incumbents and stalemate.

Internet policy issues, on the other hand, draw a much larger range of stakeholders given that the Internet does not operate under the anachronistic model of monopoly telephone providers that control all aspects of their networks within their countries.  Rather, the Internet is a diverse, multi-layered system that thrives only through the cooperation of many different parties.  Solving policy issues in this space requires engaging these different parties.  Indeed, by encouraging all interested parties to participate and share their ideas and solutions, multistakeholder processes encourage broader and more creative problem solving.  This is essential when markets and technology are changing as rapidly as they are. 

I have been fairly pleased with the progress of our first multistakeholder process on mobile apps transparency.  At the outset, participants kept looking to us to set the rules and make decisions, which we steadfastly refused to do.  Gradually, the group has been able to take charge of the process and I am optimistic that they will be able to conclude a consensus code of conduct soon.

On the international front, you heard yesterday about the outcome at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) where the United States and over fifty other nations did not sign the revised International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs).  I will not dwell on the specifics of the revisions that were made but want to focus on the larger implications of the conference.

First, just as some nations argued that the new realities of today’s communications and information networks required an overhaul of the ITRs to give governments more power, I think it is clear beyond any doubt that these same realities and the proliferation of stakeholders that have emerged in the Internet economy demonstrate how unfit government-only institutions such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) are for dealing with these issues.  I have spoken before about why the ITU is not and cannot be a true multistakeholder organization since only member states have a vote.  However, the process followed in Dubai was startling as to how even member states were denied a meaningful opportunity to participate.

The issues of governments’ seeking more control over Internet governance are not going away.  They will continue to be debated at the ITU leading up to its plenipotentiary conference in Korea next year as well as in other venues.  The question before us now is what those of us who believe in the free and open Internet and in multistakeholder governance of the Internet need to do as a result of the Dubai outcome. 

For this discussion, I divide the world into three categories.  First are those countries that embrace the multistakeholder process and are committed to a free and open Internet.  The good news is that this group is increasing in size.  Countries such as Kenya, Estonia and others are becoming beacons of Internet freedom for the rest of the world and the arguments in favor of freedom and openness are so strong and self-fulfilling that other countries will join on in the future. 

Second are those countries, largely authoritarian in nature, that are threatened by a free and open Internet.  These countries, which are fairly small in number, watched the events in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries with alarm and are not likely to move away from their preferred model of top-down control and censorship any time soon.

But that brings us to the remaining nations of the world.  These countries want the benefits of the Internet to grow their economies and create wealth for their citizens and are actively searching for the best ways to achieve those gains.  They have issues such as how to maintain sustainable investment in their infrastructures and are legitimately concerned about online problems of spam, child pornography and the like.  Interestingly, they are not committed to the idea that the ITU is the only place to bring these issues but it is the one global institution they know the best.  Based on my conversations with representatives of several of these countries in Dubai, it is clear to me that many would be open to finding solutions to these problems through other means such as multistakeholder processes but they just are not comfortable enough with this form of governance to join in.

Our challenge, starting now, is to work hard to increase the number of countries that support the multistakeholder model.  The growth in support the last several years is a direct result of the efforts of like-minded stakeholders, including the United States, to demonstrate the strength of a free and open Internet:

  • Through the world’s commitment to the global Internet Governance Forum and the support of local and regional IGF’s throughout the world;
  • Through actions such as the adoption of Internet policymaking principles at the OECD last year; and
  • Through the world’s efforts the last four years to improve existing multistakeholder organizations such as ICANN, which coordinates the Internet domain name system.

All stakeholders need to redouble their efforts to better understand the needs and challenges countries around the world have with respect to the Internet.  We need to brainstorm with them and share our ideas and resources so that they can build their capacity to deal with these issues.  We need to strengthen existing opportunities, and perhaps develop new ones, for these countries to participate in multistakeholder processes to solve their problems.  We need to make a renewed and reinvigorated commitment to getting the necessary funding and staffing to allow the Internet Governance Forum to grow.

The divide reflected in the outcome of the WCIT today is not going to go away overnight.  But our arguments are powerful and if to the all of us commit to share our knowledge and expertise, we have every reason to expect the ultimate success of the global ideal of the free, open and multistakeholder Internet.

I close with a quote, which sounds Biblical but in fact is from Leonard Nimoy, who said: “The miracle is this.  The more we share, the more we have.”  It is a fitting endnote to understanding why we need to utilize our spectrum, our knowledge, our expertise and other resources as effectively and efficiently as we can.

Thank you for listening.