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Keynote Address of Assistant Secretary Strickling at 39th Annual Telecommunications Policy Research Conference

September 23, 2011

Keynote Address of Lawrence E. Strickling,
Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information

39th Annual Telecommunications Policy Research Conference
Arlington, Virginia
September 23, 2011

Good evening.  It is a great pleasure to speak at this year’s Telecommunications Policy Research Conference—it is the 39th year for this conference.  I am particularly pleased to be here given that the predecessor to NTIA, the White House Office of Technology Policy, organized the first of these conferences.  Bruce Owen, who organized that first conference, reflected on the origins of TPRC at the occasion of the 25th conference in 1997.  He wrote then that one of the objectives of TPRC was to “provide . . . a forum for communications policy researchers to exchange ideas.”  But the aims went beyond that.  OTP organized the conference to provide “a channel for policy-relevant research to reach regulators and other government officials and for the latter to convey their research needs to academics.”

Tonight, I would like to share my thoughts about how researchers such as you can “reach” government officials like me with the fruits of your work and influence the outcomes of the many important policy matters before us.  And I’ll close by following Bruce’s advice to lay out NTIA’s research needs to you in the hope that some number of you will be intrigued enough by our issues to collect and analyze data relating to the challenges we currently face.

The starting point for the discussion is the strong commitment the Obama Administration has made to data-driven decision-making.  Even before taking office, candidate Obama declared that “government decisions should be based on the best-available, scientifically-valid evidence and not on ideological predispositions.”  We have taken this mandate to heart at NTIA, as has Chairman Genachowski at the Federal Communications Commission.

And while you might conclude that the term “ideological predispositions” refers to such views as denying global warming and insisting that the President was born in Kenya, the technology, media, and telecommunications industry has its own set of “ideological predispositions.”  We all know that on just about any contested economic issue in this industry, each side can hire an economic expert who will strenuously advocate for his or her client’s position and just as vigorously attack the position taken by the economist on the other side.  But if government officials are going to make the best decisions based on the strongest evidence and analysis, we must have economic and technical studies that are credible.

One of the great strengths of the TPRC is its credibility and the credibility of the research that is presented here.  During the 1990’s, when I ran the public policy arm at Ameritech, I looked forward to escaping the constant warfare between the Bell experts and the interexchange carrier experts by coming to TPRC where I could meet and hear from independent researchers who reached their conclusions based solely on their data.  And, given that the conference was held in Solomons, Maryland during those years, the steamed crabs were also a strong attraction.

Credibility is only one requirement if independent research is going to impact government decision-making.  Just as important is the pertinence and relevance of the research work to the issues before the government and having the opportunity to present that work to the government officials involved in the matter. The audience members at the first conference in 1971 were nearly all federal government employees from the FCC and various other departments.  But over the years, the strength of the relationship between TPRC and the federal agencies has ebbed and flowed.

I had the privilege of serving on the TPRC Board of Directors for a few years when Mike Nelson most ably served as its chair.  One of the challenges we faced was how to attract more government officials to attend the conference.  One of the innovations Mike and others made was to bring the conference closer to Washington by holding it here in this wonderful venue at George Mason Law School. That move has encouraged greater attendance at the conference. Although, I do miss the Chesapeake Bay crabs. Since I have been at NTIA, I have encouraged our staff to attend this conference by offering to use NTIA training dollars to pay the registration fee for any staff member who wishes to attend (and who is willing to attend a substantial portion of the conference).  One suggestion to the current board:  even when it is free, it is hard to get government folks to give up their entire weekend to attend this conference, no matter how valuable it is. I would like to acknowledge the attendance of a number of government staffers by asking everyone in the audience who works for NTIA, the FCC, or any other government agency to stand.  I think this level of attendance demonstrates that the opportunity to reach decision makers through this conference is improving.

But even if you have that opportunity, the next challenge is to present data and analysis that is pertinent to the issues we are working on in the government. And here is where we in government have a responsibility. The “founding fathers” of this conference knew it when they set as an objective of the first conference to have government officials convey their research needs to the academics in attendance.  That is what I would like to do tonight.

At NTIA, we are focusing our work in three principal areas:  broadband, spectrum, and Internet and telecommunications policy.  In each of these areas, we are considering some basic empirical questions where we would benefit from the analysis and expertise you could bring to the discussion.

Let me start with broadband.  First, as I am sure you know, we invested $4 billion of Recovery Act funds in about 230 strong, sustainable projects to expand broadband access and adoption in communities across the country. These projects will build and upgrade broadband infrastructure, expand and improve public computer centers, and promote sustainable broadband adoption through computer training and other approaches. These investments promise to stimulate economic growth and job creation in both the short and long term.

NTIA is vigorously overseeing these projects to ensure they are completed on time, on budget, and deliver the promised benefits to the communities they will serve. But another focus is learning from these projects and sharing that knowledge so that others who may undertake their own projects can use these lessons.

Last year, NTIA commissioned ASR Analytics to conduct a multi-year evaluation of the economic and social benefits delivered by the broadband grants. As we thought about how best to construct a rigorous and meaningful study, we found that the task is not easy.  For example, our infrastructure grantees are primarily constructing “middle mile” facilities and extending broadband to community anchor institutions, not individual homes and businesses.  This approach gives us the biggest bang for the buck and primes the pump of private investment since these networks are open to anyone to use.  However, this approach means that we cannot simply evaluate the impact of a BTOP project by counting new broadband subscribers.  In addition, it can be difficult to know which customers are using which middle mile networks and to assess the benefits of those networks for customers. 

We would benefit from your insights and continued involvement on these critical issues. What is the best way to measure the effect of broadband middle mile networks on the domestic economy and on specific communities, including groups of people currently unserved or underserved by broadband networks?  What is the most effective way to measure the effects of our grants on indirect job creation?  

Our infrastructure projects can also lay the foundation for long-term revitalization of the communities they serve.  In other words, we expect that the benefits from our projects will extend beyond the period of our current evaluation.  The research community can help us paint a more complete picture of BTOP’s economic and social benefits by assessing those benefits in the years after our analysis ends. We will make the requisite data publicly available to assist your efforts.

A second set of research issues stems from our work on Internet usage and broadband availability. The Census data on Internet usage consistently show disparities in broadband adoption among specific groups. For example, urban households are more likely to adopt broadband than rural households, and adoption rates in White households are higher than in Black or Hispanic households.  We recognize, of course, that those gaps may be attributable in some degree to other factors, most notably income.  If you control for income and other socio-economic factors, these adoption gaps diminish – but they do not disappear. So what other factors – whether economic or cultural – are at play? Why do similarly situated households choose to use broadband services at differing rates?

Similarly, our broadband availability data depicts where broadband services are deployed throughout the U.S.; it does not explain why these deployment patterns exist as they do. To what extent are differences in availability due to population density, geography, or local regulation (for example, the ease or difficulty of obtaining construction permits)?  Creative analysis of the available data could help policymakers to understand the underlying causes of existing deployment disparities, which would, in turn, help us craft effective and efficient solutions.

And there is plenty of data available on all of these issues from NTIA and the Department of Commerce.  We are good at collecting in a systematic fashion a wide range of financial, economic, and demographic information that can provide the grist for your research. And thanks to the Administration’s efforts, government has taken a big step forward by making more data accessible to the public.  One good place for you to start is www.data.gov.

NTIA is the leading source of published data on broadband access and adoption in America.  Last February, we unveiled the National Broadband Map – America’s first public, searchable nationwide map of broadband Internet availability.  Each update of the map is powered by an extensive, publicly available dataset – more than 20 million records – that shows where broadband is available, the technology used to provide the service, the maximum advertised speeds, and the names of the service providers.  We are also collecting the locations of community anchor institutions and the broadband services that they adopt. We updated the map and underlying dataset earlier this week, and if you have questions about how to use the data, I would encourage you to stay for the after-dinner panel and hear from Anne Neville, the Director of our State Broadband Initiative.

On the broadband adoption side, NTIA has commissioned nine years of surveys from the U.S. Census Bureau. The data is online. We expect to release additional data in early October that we previewed earlier this year.  In the last two years, NTIA has held public workshops where we encouraged researchers to identify additional Internet use data that Census could collect and to help us make the data we do collect user-friendly for the research community and the public at large. 

I encourage you to take advantage of this growing wealth of government data as you identify research topics and develop your methodologies.

Let me turn next to spectrum.  I am sure everyone here knows the President directed us to work with the FCC to find 500 megahertz of spectrum to make available in the next ten years for commercial wireless broadband services. Last year, we announced our recommendation to reallocate 115 megahertz of spectrum pursuant to the President’s direction, and we are about to conclude our review of another 95 megahertz in the 1755-1850 range. Economists and other researchers have greatly advanced spectrum policy over the years—that is why we now have auctions instead of giving away licenses. Today, while the technical issues of interference dominate our discussions, there are important economic and business questions for researchers to chew on. 

For example, the days of clearing spectrum bands of all government uses and then making them available for the exclusive use of commercial service providers are pretty much over.  Today, federal agencies have exclusive control over only 18% of the spectrum between 300 and 3000 megahertz.  Over the years, the critical missions performed by federal agencies have required systems of greater and greater complexity, which makes their relocation quite costly and lengthy.  We are headed for an environment where commercial wireless broadband will need to co-exist in the same bands with federal operations. This new environment raises technical issues for sure. But it also raises business issues as to how companies will be able to organize themselves to be more interference tolerant through spectrum sharing arrangements or other vehicles.  We need researchers to analyze these issues and help chart the course to expand the availability of spectrum over the next ten years.

Finally, let me turn to Internet policy. The Internet we enjoy today—this marvelous engine of innovation and economic growth – did not develop by happenstance. It emerged from the hard work of multistakeholder organizations such as the Internet Society, the Internet Engineering Task Force, and the World Wide Web Consortium.  These organizations have played a major role in designing and operating the Internet we know today.

These multistakeholder processes have succeeded by their very nature of openness and inclusiveness. They are most capable of attacking issues with the speed and flexibility required in this rapidly changing environment.  By engaging all interested parties, a multistakeholder process encourages broader and more creative problem solving, which is essential when markets and technology are changing as rapidly as they are. It promotes speedier, more flexible decision making than is common under traditional, top-down regulatory models than can too easily fall prey to rigid procedures, bureaucracy, and stalemate.

The United States strongly supports the use of a multistakeholder process as the preferred means of addressing Internet policy issues. NTIA is working with other agencies within the Department of Commerce on how we can use such a process to advance a number of Internet-related issues, including commercial data privacy, cybersecurity, and the global free flow of information. We have been active in promoting the multistakeholder model in the international arena through our work at the OECD and at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the organization that coordinates the Internet’s domain name system.

There is a challenge emerging to this model in parts of the world.  Some nations appear to prefer an Internet managed and controlled by nation-states.  During the 2012 review of the International Telecommunications Regulations, we can expect that some states will attempt to rewrite those regulations in a manner that would establish heavy-handed government control of the Internet. 

The challenge before all of us is to convince the rest of the world of the advantages of the multistakeholder approach. You can help by conducting independent, fact-based assessments of the multistakeholder process: Where has it been tried?  What have been the successes and failures, and why?  What preconditions must exist, and what procedures must exist for the developing world to profit from the multistakeholder process as the developed world has over the last two decades?

Let me close by saying that the last four decades should demonstrate to all that the government policymakers understand that government regulation can impose costs and that the stakes are too high – in terms of innovation, competitiveness, and economic growth – to risk imposing those costs without careful study.  We also recognize, however, that there is oftentimes a role for government to play – perhaps at times through regulation, but also at times by convening stakeholders to forge solutions. Given the stakes, it is essential that policymakers make their decisions based, so far as possible, on a sound empirical foundation.  That need for data-driven, disinterested empirical research is growing even greater as the pace of technology quickens and the issues facing policymakers become more complex. 

We are indebted to TPRC for its contributions to the policymaking process over the last four decades and we look forward to the work that you will produce in the future.  Thank you.