Did the National Broadband Plan spur innovation?

On March 18, my colleagues and I at the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy convened a full-day conference to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the National Broadband Plan.

Publication of the plan on March 17, 2010 marked a historic milestone for the Federal Communications Commission. The visionary document defined and refined policies to accelerate broadband deployment, adoption and technical advancement. It set key milestones for private, public, and consumer stakeholders.

Many of the original authors participated, including Blair Levin of the Brookings Institution, who oversaw the plan’s development over a year-long effort at the agency. In all, over 20 speakers from government, industry and civil society offered their assessment of the plan’s successes, failures, and teachings.

Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors, delivered keynote remarks.  Furman, who was involved in drafting the legislation that led to the plan, noted that the White House has long seen broadband as a key lever in improving economic outcomes for all Americans, raising the standard of living and improving U.S. competitiveness.

He urged the FCC to accelerate design of auctions to free up urgently-needed radio spectrum from over-the-air broadcasters. These unique auctions, called for in the plan, were authorized by Congress in early 2012 but have been delayed several times.

How has the U.S. done overall since 2010?  Here’s what we found:

Deployment – The plan’s audacious goal of encouraging private investments to provide 100 million homes access to the Internet at speeds of 100 Mbps by 2020 now appears to be a foregone conclusion. Operators have installed hundreds of thousands of miles of new fiber optic cables, with incumbent communications companies all offering full or hybrid fiber broadband in much of the United States. For cable, upgrades to communications protocols known as DOCSIS 3.1 will deliver speeds well over 100 Mbps using much of the existing network infrastructure.

An even bigger surprise has been the construction of networks delivering 10 times the plan’s milestone speed of 100 Mbps. The FCC had modestly called on private network operators simply to test the feasibility of such community-wide gigabit networks for consumers, businesses, and civic organizations.  But providers embraced the challenge with competitive gusto.  Several communities now have gigabit Internet service through combinations of fiber, cable and traditional wired networks, with dozens more in construction or in planning stages.  More remarkable still, some cities will soon have a choice of four competing providers of gigabit service. Levin, who now leads a non-profit organization called Gig.U that helps research universities attract private investment in gigabit networks, says that the “game of gigs” is now on.

Mobile – With the release of the first iPhone in 2007, mobile broadband became a staple consumer good in record time. Reviewing the pace of mobile demand, the plan raised alarms that enthusiasm for new mobile applications, particularly video, would exacerbate strains on wireless networks to meet future demand using existing spectrum allocations. The Plan called on the FCC, the Department of Commerce and the White House to allocate an additional 300 MHz of capacity by 2015 and 500 MHz by 2020.

With little inventory of usable and unassigned spectrum, however, meeting that goal required continuing engineering improvements that made better use of a wider range of frequencies and allowed for more sophisticated spectrum sharing. It also meant freeing up spectrum from both commercial and government licensees. Over-the-air television broadcasters and federal agencies were identified as the two best sources of underutilized spectrum that could be repurposed for mobile broadband.  But federal users in particular had little incentive to share or release their licensed bands.

John Leibovitz, deputy bureau chief of the FCC’s Wireless Bureau, reflected on the significant progress the government has made, including the recent auction of high-bandwidth spectrum known as AWS-3, which, after 300 rounds of bidding, raised nearly $45 billion from a variety of private network operators. Notably, these included Dish Network, which, according to press accounts, has been acquiring spectrum from a variety of sources for a potential new retail or wholesale network.

Participants agreed that federal spectrum holders, including the Department of Defense, have exhibited a significant and essential change in attitude by being more responsive to the realities of having to vacate or share their valuable spectrum.

Despite these achievements, the plan’s projections have proven conservative, requiring even more aggressive measures to feed the continuing mobile revolution. Policies are urgently needed that will unlock more spectrum, enable standards-bodies to complete their work on new protocols for high band spectrum,  and facilitate the deployment of network technologies that can more efficiently manage networks in real-time to support over a billion mobile devices.

Incentives for government licensees to change their behavior, including the ability to keep some of the proceeds of future auctions, are also essential issues still to be resolved, and likely require Congressional action.

Adoption – The plan called for significant progress towards the long-term goal of getting all Americans connected to the broadband Internet, especially minority communities, lower-income households, and older and rural Americans, all of whom lagged significantly in getting online.

Reviewing substantial progress over the last five years, John Horrigan of the Pew Research Center reported that low-cost programs from leading ISPs, such as Comcast’s Internet Essentials, had signed up hundreds of thousands of previously offline low-income families, helping to close the “digital divide.”

Today, neither price nor availability of broadband are the factors that most determine why some groups are still behind the adoption curve. Instead, research has consistently shown that over the last five years non-users are more likely to identify a perceived lack of relevance of broadband Internet in their lives as the main reason not to adopt.

To close what remains of the digital divide, community-based toolkits must be refined to make the case for how and why using broadband is relevant to the day-to-day lives of offline Americans. Winning strategies will focus on partnerships (as with libraries, schools and other, anchor civic institutions), engagement (especially with parents of school-age children), and training (a particular issue for older Americans.)

Government applications– Another way to make the case for broadband relevance, of course, is for innovators to continue developing compelling applications for broadband.

Beyond the already dramatic migration of entertainment content from televisions to smartphones, tablets, and other mobile screens, the last five years has seen an explosion of new services that make the business case for broadband even more enticing.

In Silicon Valley, for example, investors are pouring billions into future technologies that will connect the trillion or so items in everyday use, a phenomena known as the “Internet of Things.” And sharing economy applications, including popular services such as Lyft, Uber and Airbnb, are also drawing in new users and keeping existing users more connected.

The plan, however, focused on broadband services that could improve governmental and regulated services, calling on entrepreneurs to use Internet technologies to kick start the transformation of health care, education, energy and public safety.

The results here have been disappointing.  While 60 million smart utility meters have been installed in the last five years, the development of a safer and smarter energy grid is still a long way off. And in health care and education, regulatory constraints provide a potent disincentive to innovate or invest.

For public safety, Congress has allocated dedicated spectrum and the FCC has raised the money through spectrum auctions to fund FirstNet, a nationwide interoperable network for first responders, called for in both the 911 Report and underscored by the National Broadband Plan.  But the project is still in early planning stages.

To fulfill the plan’s goals for national applications of broadband technologies, each of these areas requires substantial policy change.  Realigning incentives, removing counter-productive regulation, and freeing entrepreneurs to experiment freely are key.


As the broadband revolution expands into every industry and sector of the economy, new regulatory challenges require new thinking. Emerging technologies, such as the Internet of Things, the sharing economy, and autonomous vehicles, hadn’t even been thought of at the time the plan was published.  Yet each of these and other innovations in their early stages are now causing conflicts at the intersection of innovation and policy.

For the next five years, we need a significant policy reset to meet both the challenges and opportunities of the broadband revolution. Or rather, as I’ve argued before, a return to the bipartisan “light touch” policy embraced in the early years of the Internet revolution, in which regulators largely left broadband governance to the multi-stakeholder engineering-driven process that created the technology in the first place.

As the broadband revolution spreads its disruption farther from traditional computing, communications and consumer electronics industries, innovators need a kind of Hippocratic Oath from policymakers of all political persuasions. When considering regulatory intervention in quickly-evolving markets and technologies, our overriding public policy should be “first, do no harm.”

But given the alarming rise in heavy-handed interventions from state and local regulators, as well as a growing list of federal agencies including the FAA, FDA, FTC, SEC and the FCC itself, the prospects for a return to more rational policies — the kind that encouraged the broadband revolution to achieve the remarkable progress we have already witnessed — seem dim, at least for now.

The seeds for the National Broadband Plan were sown in the early days of the Obama administration.  Perhaps the next president will call for a second plan that will build on the successes of the first.  And learn from its misfires.

Larry Downes is co-author with Paul Nunes of “Big Bang Disruption:  Strategy in the Age of Devastating Innovation” (Portfolio 2014). He is a project director at the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy.

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