my first FCC TAC meeting

November 15th, 2010 by kc

I recently attended my first FCC Technological Advisory Council meeting (video archives). A week before the meeting we received a memo from the chairman of the committee (Tom Wheeler) notifying the committee of a “clear and challenging mandate from Chairman Genachowski: to generate ideas and spur actions that lead to job creation and economic growth in the ICT [information and communication technologies] ecosystem.” Specifically, “The TAC will focus on the short term implementation of innovative ideas to create investment and jobs, as opposed to long term regulatory changes.”

I admit some suspicion at having the FCC’s mission hijacked for short-term political ends, after they spent so much time on a fantastically visionary National Broadband Plan, but the unemployment statistics are certainly staggering, so I accept the assignment as civil duty. What seems less sensible is the implication that FCC’s current mission and strategy is somehow not conducive to creating jobs. On the contrary, if the FCC kept their commitment to promote competition in the broadband Internet market (as other countries do) they would not only create jobs, but advance several other goals in the Communications Act as well as the more recent Broadband Plan.

The 39 TAC members were asked several questions to inspire discussion at the first meeting. Specifically, we were asked to suggest policies to spur ICT investment in selected “growth field” areas: spectrum, health care, energy/environment, public safety, transportation, and Devices/Internet of Things, as well as suggesting additional growth areas. The questions and my thoughts, refined based on what I heard at the meeting, are below.

  1. What (if any) growth field categories would you add to the list?
    1. Networks naturally give rise to markets. Markets generate jobs. The FCC’s mission is already to promote competition and user choice, which means lowering the barriers to creating network infrastructure. We have already known for decades, if not centuries, what policies promote competition. The FCC needs to (re)-implement them. A related obvious opportunity to promote growth of network infrastructure (and thus markets, and thus jobs) is policy support for ad hoc or  mesh networking and municipal broadband projects that can take advantage of underutilized spectrum.
    2. Online education, such as Steve Midgley’s Learning Registry. The FCC’s Director of Education for the National Broadband Plan, Steve is now at the Department of Education executing on his vision to “provide valuable federal learning resources within a relatively simple web framework, and let others utilize our functionality to create interesting and valuable new solutions. If those solutions are effective, more educators will use them, and more innovators will develop new products for the network.” Sounds like precisely the kind of jobs we need to build a labor force capable of doing the rest of the most productive jobs that emerge this century.
  2. What short term, job creating actions or policy changes immediately come to mind for discussion after reading the memo?
    1. A gap in interagency cooperation handicaps the FCC’s ability to promote job-creating innovation. For example, the FCC could (and should) work with the National Science Foundation on a joint Internet measurement science program. A measurement science initiative would support the transparency objectives in the Broadband Plan, which would leverage NSF research funding as well as create the kind of jobs (graduate students!) that are not only low cost, but also generate innovation and future jobs. Instead the FCC is funding a British company to do performance testing from closed (proprietary) devices running closed (proprietary) software, an initiative that does not seem to be creating any jobs for Americans, nor doing much for transparency (though it is really too soon to tell).
    2. The FCC should also work with the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity R&D center to help deploy security technologies (such as DNSSEC) in national infrastructure. The FCC and the DHS have another obvious synergy: DHS’s privacy-respecting data-sharing framework which could support sharing of data required under the NTIA BTOP awards with researchers who have long needed better quantitative data to inform policy.
    3. IPv6 — the only term uttered more than “jobs” at the TAC meeting. A broad consensus seemed to emerge that the FCC should do something, even if only use its “bully pulpit”, to promote IPv6 investment and deployment. I have doubts about the necessary political will here — the backward incompatibility between IPv4 and IPv6 means that not only will governments have to regulate IPv6 into existence, but they will ultimately have to regulate IPv4 out of existence (think digital TV transition) if IPv6 is to survive. The FCC faces quite a challenge trying to bully IPv6 into deployment; the world’s need for it, despite its limitations and incentive-incompatibilities, is the best justification yet for investment in future Internet architecture research (see (4) below).
  3. In what ways can we maximize new efficiencies in technology and industry (i.e. spectrum sharing, convergence of communications with other sectors) towards job creation and new investment?

    If we make sure efficiencies are sufficiently documented, capital will naturally move toward investment in them. Increasing sunlight will do a world of good here. Examples include maintaining online maps of infrastructure, documenting how the infrastructure is provisioned and maintained, and correlating provisioning models with economic statistics including employment in the region.

  4. What new technologies are you aware of have great potential or excite you? What are the barriers to it developing to job-producing, commercial scale?
    1. Eduroam, a role model project that started in Europe, but leveraging U.S. academic networking security technology. It’s likely already creating jobs, but  extending this model to other communities would both create jobs, extend broadband coverage at low cost, and improve security all in one package.
    2. Apple’s iPhone/iPad and (more importantly) its more open emerging competitors. Enforcing their own principles of broadband deployment in the more pervasive mobile realm, i.e., ensuring consumers can choose which applications, services, and providers they use on such devices, the FCC will create a level playing field that will generate markets (and thus jobs) on its own.
    3. Named-Data Networking, one of four Future Internet Architecture projects funded by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Computer and Network Systems. The barriers to such an ambitious vision include challenges in understanding of how technology and policy [must] co-evolve, and testbeds to study such new architectures at large scale. (Disclosure: I’m enthusiastically participating in this project, see a future blog entry.)
    4. Online education/curriculum development (see above), to help develop scalable sustainable software systems to collaboratively develop academic curriculum materials.
    5. Social computational systems, another one of many exciting  programs currently coming out of the National Science Foundation.
  5. Imagine the next great technological product or service. What are the 2 or 3 technology advances that get us to that new product or service?

    This question embeds a false assumption that technology rather than policy is the current gatekeeper of ICT innovation. The increase in density, and finer granularity, of connectivity spurs current innovation. The shortest path the FCC can take to job creation requires not new, or any specific, technology, but policies that incent investment in — and equitable access to — ubiquitous network infrastructure, by a healthy ecosystem of competing service providers, which will enable new playing fields and inspire technologies that can leverage them. New products and services, and the jobs that provide them, will follow. Facilitating development of richer network infrastructure with symmetric bandwidth will enable all consumers to be producers — many will create their own jobs! But current economic models and policies for infrastructure provisioning will not allow this breakthrough.

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