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March 6, 2012, 1 p.m.

Blair Levin on national broadband and its implications for the future of journalism

The man who headed up the FCC’s National Broadband Plan talks with us about the role Internet access plays in information sharing and innovation

“Innovation is always about the adjacent possible,” Blair Levin told me. “It’s about two things kind of combining in ways we had not thought. It’s not about great leaps, but it’s about that combination. I think we’re going to see that on devices in a variety of ways. And by the way, the power of broadband is the power of that adjacent possible, because it enables all kinds of collaboration that didn’t exist.”

You may have heard of Levin in his role as the head of the group at the Federal Communications Commission that created the National Broadband Plan. Levin was executive director of the Omnibus Broadband Initiative, an effort to bring faster, more accessible Internet across every corner of the United States. The plan was released almost two years ago this month, with recommendations to Congress on how a more robust broadband could affect education, job growth, and innovation in areas like health care and research. Levin left the FCC in 2010 and now is a communications and society fellow at the Aspen Institute. He recently visited Cambridge to talk about national broadband and spectrum policy in a seminar at Harvard Law School.

I spoke with Levin about the implementation of the National Broadband Plan and his view that access is as much about our society’s values as it is about laying out the plumbing for a better internet across the country. Levin also shared his thoughts on how broadband is vital to sharing information within communities and its role in the future of journalism. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Justin Ellis: One of the things I was really interested in — and I want to make sure I’m getting the phrase right — was high-performance knowledge exchange, the phrase you use. Explain a little bit more what that is.
Blair Levin: So if you think about what we do as a society, a huge — and more importantly increasing — amount is exchange information. Basically all of education is about exchanging information. Medicine is largely about exchanging information. I suppose surgery is doing a physical thing, but most of it is about exchanging information. But even things like what Walmart does, it’s not all about just making a good and putting it on the shelf. What goods do you use, and what do you stockpile — things like that are all tasks for which, if you improve the information flow, you improve the outcome.

Think of it this way: A textbook is an example of low-performance knowledge exchange. You print up five million textbooks in Texas. You give all kids the same textbook. If it’s wrong, it takes five years to correct. There’s no way to assess whether it works. Think of a high-performance exchange analogue, which would be using a Kindle or iPad where you’re reading a history lesson. Maybe you don’t quite understand it — you click a link and you can watch a video. You click a link and you get a tutor. You click a link and you get a Facebook group talking about that chapter…That’s an example of high-performance knowledge exchange. We use knowledge to improve how we do everything that we do.

Justin Ellis: How do you think journalism fits into that exchange? Is it simply the sharing of information or is it, as we’ve seen, that journalism has become more collaborative? How does it fit into what you envision?
Blair Levin: Journalism is all about knowledge exchange. It’s 100 percent about knowledge exchange — that’s what it does. The problem with journalism today is not the knowledge exchange, it’s the business model. Because the old revenue models were based on exchanging information in ways that are not as efficient. Classified ads in a newspaper are not as efficient as Craigslist or Angie’s List for a lot of different reasons. So journalism has to find a business model.

Having said that, the tools are fantastic. If you can figure out the business model, the tools for, as you say, collaboration are tremendous. And the access to things that used to take a reporter three months of dogged research to do but are now on a database where someone’s sitting at a terminal can find it in two minutes. Think about how Google search has changed the way we look for information. That’s what journalists used to do. There’s a lot of benefits to this — but unfortunately it’s the business model that’s at risk.

Justin Ellis: In terms of the current landscape of how people access information, either through wired — desktops, laptop computers — or mobile devices, where would you describe we are now and where do we need to be ?
Blair Levin: I think there are four dimensions to the problem: Devices, applications, networks, and people. The device side is fantastic. The improvements in devices since the development of the iPhone, the ability of anybody intuitively to utilize a device to get information, there’s massive improvements and huge implications for everything we do. That’s great — no problem there. And, by the way, the United States does not lead in manufacturing, but it does lead in the development and design of these things. On the application side, I think we’re pretty good. Again, the United States leads and that’s great.

But I think that we constantly see what we might think of as applications or content, whether it be a Khan Academy or — I’m on the board of a nonprofit that’s creating software for social work, and I think there’s a lot of creativity and innovation in those spaces. I think on the people side, we still have a significant portion of the population that is not Internet-literate, device-literate. It’s not literate, actually — that’s part of the problem. That interestingly changes in a few years as the devices become oral devices — in other words, they don’t require typing. You can talk into them. It’ll be interesting to see how that changes, but I think we have some work to do there.

I think we’re falling behind, but I think instead of looking at it as a price problem, we ought to look at it as a value problem.

On the network side, we’re pretty far along, I think, in terms of the development of what I think of as first-generation broadband. And we’re about to get wireless what I would think of as first-generation broadband. Where we as a country are falling behind is thinking about bandwidth as a strategic input to certain kinds of new industries.

Justin Ellis: The availability vs. access issue. Talk about how those are different in communities, because it seems to me that those are things that could be confused when we talk about the ability of a person to have broadband.
Blair Levin: One: Is there a network that will deliver broadband to a home? When we looked at the broadband plan, we had heard anecdotally that this was both an urban and rural problem. Rural is understandable — it’s always been because it’s more expensive to build a network when you’re sharing it over fewer people. It’s a density problem, fundamentally, on a per-mile basis. We had heard that it’s also an urban problem, that there are low-income areas where there wasn’t broadband. That turned out to be a very, very small problem and that problem I believe will be addressed. The rural one the market will not address on its own, and we spend billions of dollars every year to fix it…But I don’t actually think we will fix it. And the reason I say that is that the people who control most of the lines that have not been upgraded to broadband are saying, both publicly and privately, that the reform wasn’t sufficient to give them an incentive to fix it.

Broadband can contribute mightily to helping us understand the world, because it gives us access to information we wouldn’t have otherwise, but there still is that human element. And the problem is, if you don’t have that human element, you really miss the story.

Now on the access side, there’s approximately 20 million Americans who don’t have access to networks. There’s another 80 million who have access but don’t take it. There are a variety of different reasons — partly it’s an economic issue, and there are efforts being done to address that. Partly it’s a literacy problem, and there are some efforts there. I think we’re falling behind, but I think instead of looking at it as a price problem, we ought to look at it as a value problem.

Justin Ellis: Going forward, how do you see people’s use of devices impacting the way they receive information and how can that be reflected in broadband policy? Or is that something that can take care of itself in the market?
Blair Levin: The single biggest change is that in the old days we thought about two different kinds of uses. One was fixed — you’re at a desk looking at your computer screen. The other was mobile — you’re in a car and you’re driving. But it turns out that the biggest use today, and the iPad is a big driver of this, is what we might think of as nomadic. You’re just walking around your office, walking around your house, you’re at a Starbucks — you’re moving about, but it’s not like you’re in a car going 60 miles per hour. This has dramatic implications for how we actually configure the network and use it. So that’s a really big trend. I think there are all kinds of wonderful things going on with the ability to create devices that are friendly to a doctor walking around a hospital, or friendly to a teacher walking around a school, or a business person walking around that manages to capture and analyze information. But you never know where the right thing is going to come from.
Justin Ellis: Lastly, touching back to journalism again, do you have any ideas about how expanding broadband could perhaps lead to innovations in journalism either through the business side or through how it’s delivered?
Blair Levin: Well, there are certain things we know to be true, most of them are negative to the business model. But here are a few positive ones: First, it enables everyone to be a journalist. Distribution is no longer the issue it once was, and also access to information — there’s a lot more. Anybody has access to information. That doesn’t mean everyone’s going to be a good journalist — it just means anyone can be a journalist. So that’s a good thing.

Second, the power to collaborate is much greater — the ability of people in diverse locations to look at something and analyze it and come up with a conclusion about its meaning is very different than it once was. And so, you know, two heads can be better than one, three can be better, four can be better…So I think it enables collaboration between individuals, and that’s a good thing. The third thing is the whole data-, algorithm-based analysis. So when you are looking at government budgets, and looking at certain things which really are subject to large data sets, you can do things and analyze things faster, better…

I think that journalism, at it’s heart, is telling us the story of what’s going on, to try and tell us, “here’s something that’s important, here’s something that’s valuable.” Broadband can contribute mightily to helping us understand the world, because it gives us access to information we wouldn’t have otherwise, but there still is that human element. And the problem is, if you don’t have that human element, you really miss the story.

POSTED     March 6, 2012, 1 p.m.
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