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Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 37

| Written by ILSR | No Comments | Updated on Jul 7, 2015 The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website at

Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for the episode 37 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Blair Levin on Gig.U. Listen to this episode here.



Lisa Gonzalez:  Hi, there, and welcome again to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.  I’m Lisa Gonzalez.

Christopher Mitchell interviews Blair Levin, the Executive Director at Gig.U, a project of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program.  Blair was Executive Director of the effort that led to the National Broadband Plan.  He was also Chief of Staff for the FCC during the Clinton administration.  Blair has worked as an attorney and a Wall Street analyst.  Chris and Blair talk about different approaches in the drive to bring ubiquitous access to America.  Each model, whether centered on public or private ownership, has advantages and drawbacks.  They delve into the similarities and unique challenges of each.  Here are Christopher and Blair.


Christopher Mitchell:  Thank you for joining us for Community Broadband Bits today.  We’re talking with Blair Levin, the Executive Director of Gig.U.  Thank you for coming on the show.


Blair Levin:  Happy to be here, Chris.


Chris:  Can we start by getting a sense of what Gig.U is?


Blair:  Sure.  Gig.U is a project of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program.  We’re about three dozen university communities — research university communities — who came together to try to see if we can accelerate the deployment of next-generation networks to support education and economic development.  In other words, we were trying to see — if Google in Kansas City was an example of the supply side holding a competition for the demand side — 1100 communities competing to get that fiber — we wanted to see what communities could do to increase the ability of the supply side to provide next-generation networks — or fiber — not just to one community, and not just from one provider, but to multiple communities.  With the thought that research university communities are particularly well-suited for that — for that mission.


Chris:  We had submitted a response when, originally, I believe, one of the first things you did was, you went out and asked anyone who wanted to submit some ideas as to how communities could do this …


Blair:  Right.


Chris:  .. our response was that we thought communities could do this on their own, effectively, by recognizing where the needs were, and starting to make some investments.  And we’re very supportive of partnerships and that sort of thing.  So this is a — it’s an open-ended approach, from what I’m seeing.


Blair:  Right.  And we got about sixty responses to that Request For Information, back in the fall of 2011.  And that has driven a lot of other activities by communities.  And we greatly appreciate the thoughtful response you guys gave us.  And the communities all read it, and people are proceeding in a variety of different ways.


Chris:  We’re going to be talking mostly about Gig.U over the course of this conversation, but I did want to ask you, quickly, how you responded to Chairman Genachowski’s — what’s being called the Gigabit Challenge.


Blair:  Well, actually, ironically, I was meeting with a bunch of communities who were talking about how can they get a gigabit network in their communities, and suddenly my BlackBerry starts going off with a bunch of texts and messages, asking me what I thought of the Chairman’s speech to the — I guess it was to the League of Cities or Conference of Mayors.  And my — a thought was actually to remember an old Talmudic line, that if you are planting a garden, and someone comes to you and says, the Messiah has arrived, keep planting the garden.  And so I turned my BlackBerry off and just kept going with the meeting.


Chris:  [laughs]


Blair:  I liked the speech directionally.  I’m obviously very supportive of the notion — which by the way was expressed in the National Broadband Plan, which is almost three years old now — that we need a critical mass of communities with not just good connectivity but the best connectivity in the world.  And I’m very glad the Chairman has joined in articulating that.  That’s very important that he do so.  The question to me is, what does the FCC do about it?  The FCC is an agency with immense powers, in a variety of different ways.  And I’d love to see them actively engaged in the pursuit of this goal, and not just simply saying others should do it.


Chris:  Yeah.  That was — it’s a terrific response to it.  I — my first response was to say that it’s terrific to see the FCC recognizing the value of these networks, but it seems somewhat of a slap in the face for some to say, well, yeah, you should go build these networks, and we’re not going to use any of our power to make it easier or more feasible for you to do so.  So, I really hope we see more engagement.


Blair:  Yeah.  You know, it remains to be seen.  I mean, they’re going to hold some workshops, and hopefully they’ll invite the right people, and they’ll have a very robust conversation, and they’ll look at — hopefully they’ll look at policies, not just at cities and not just at states, but at federal policies that can be used to make it so.


Chris:  So, I want to start the conversation back toward the Gig.U.  And I want to start by focusing on a lot of that we — have — agree with.  I think you have a pretty good sense of our focus on encouraging networks that are directly — structurally — responsive to the community.  You know, I think we both agree that there is a real problem with investment in next-generation networks in many areas.  You know, I think we’re both worried about a future in which a few companies dominate, nationally, this service.  Are there other things that you think we should just make sure we note that we agree on, before we talk about things on which we may have a slightly different point of view?


Blair:  [laughs]  Well, here’s the way I would say it, Chris.  And I’ve followed your work, and the work of the Institute, for a long time, and deeply respect it, and very much admire it.  I’m not one who believes that I know all the answers, or that there’s a single way to achieve anything.  I also think that there’s a certain — you know, I’ve been in this field for about 20 years, and there’s a certain cyclicality to it, you know.  Them that were first shall be last, and them that were last will be first.  And, you know, at different points in time, you need different responses, both in the market and in government.  So, it’s never one-size-fits-all forever.

I think that, to me, the fundamental issue is that the telephone industry, which was a voice industry, arose with a certain kind of social contract, which was, fundamentally, we give you a monopoly; you give us universal service.  The cable industry arose with a social contract — known as local franchise agreements — which was, fundamentally, you give us multi-channel video distribution and we’ll give you a monopoly, but you’ve got to serve everybody — again, universal service.  Those fundamental social contracts then led those networks to be the primary broadband providers.  But the social contracts don’t really apply any more.  And what we have is a system where we have privately-financed — which I like — systems that produce a number of public benefits, or public goods.  And the challenge for us is, in a very different economy, with very different needs, and very different technologies, how do we continue to get those public benefits?  In a very different world?

And I think that, tactically, you and I may disagree.  I think we’re trying to get to the same place, which is a — you know, a robust world of faster-cheaper-better broadband for everyone, that allows people to do, in a world where, you know, the economy is being run over broadband, to do what they want to do, to educate themselves, to have better healthcare, to have better government services, and to have a robust and growing economy.


Chris:  Right.  I think that’s right.  If I would describe, a slightly different way, what you have moved forward at Gig.U, I think you’ve said, well, where can we start to see some real investments in networks?  And you’ve gone to the research universities and said, well, this is a place where there’s a tremendous business case, potentially.  And you’ve opened it up to say — or, you’ve encouraged communities to work together on a framework that allows them to attract investors, or attract partners.  So, what I’m a little bit concerned about is that — not that we’ll see it everywhere, or even in the majority of places, but I think that approach could lead to what’s called, often, “skimming the cream,” …


Blair:  Um hum.


Chris:  … which is that you may see some service providers want to invest in those very lucrative areas, but then will not have an interest in investing elsewhere.  And I’m curious if you’ve wrestled with that potential problem.


Blair:  Every community that I’ve dealt with wrestles with it.  And I think it’s a serious issue.  I’ll — let me just make a couple of quick points, though.  Number one: the reason that I went to Gig.U is not because the research universities are wealthier, but because they are more bandwidth-intensive.  The thought was, when 1100 communities applied for Google Fiber — which I thought was fantastic, and, actually, somewhat unexpected —  You know, by the way, you know, in the National Broadband Plan, we said, we really want to have this critical mass of communities with world-**ing networks, but we didn’t have a good idea of how to do it.  Google stepped up and said, we’ll do it.  And then, when 11 communities applied, I started thinking, wow, that’s fantastic.  But we don’t need 1100 communities to kind of light the fire, to see what the next generation can bring.  But we do need a dozen.  We don’t need — we don’t need — one is not enough.  So if you look at it that way, you might say, which communities have two things: number one, the easiest economics — high density, high demand, high level of existing network assets.  And the answer to that is, of course, university communities.  Then you say, which communities are going to be the most innovative?  To kind of, shall we say — you know, it’s that early-adopter phase, where you want people really using it.  I mean, give me a gig, I’m — I’m — what am I going to do with it, watch movies faster?  Give my kids gigs, they might do something interesting with it.  So, university communities have always been the most innovative places for these networks.  So that’s why we went — we wanted to do that.  It’s not about wealth as much as it’s about innovation, and about simple economics.


Chris:  Right.  And, actually, I did mean that’s how I’ve understood it.  And so if I was unclear, I’m sorry.


Blair:  No, no problem.  But I think that every single community that we’ve dealt with — that we’ve worked with — asks the question, you know, is this going to be in some places but not others.  And I think if you look at — that’s a political decision which is really important.  So if you look at the projects that we’ve done, or that we’ve been involved with — and, again, Gig.U itself is never a party to a deployment, but we are a learning community where people can come together.

So, for example, in the city of Chicago, the University of Chicago and the state have a project, which, in fact, is serving some underserved areas.  That was a — they wanted to make sure that happened.  So it’s not just about a gig, it’s about upgrading the network for the whole community around the University of Chicago.

The city of Seattle, when they did their project, which was announced in December, they made certain kinds of policy choices to upgrade some communities that are not simply about having a gig to the most kind of what you might think of as the most bandwidth-hungry parts of the community.

And then there are other cities.  For example, you know, the city of Chicago itself did an RFI that in some ways was modeled off the RFI that we did.  But I think they did a really good job of defining what is it that the city wants that is a little bit different.  They asked for some — they wanted to do some gigabit zones.  But they asked — also were trying to upgrade networks in certain poorer communities.  So I think that’s a situation that every city or community has to grapple with.

I will note that there was one community, that I’ve talked to, that wanted to — very much wanted to be involved with Gig.U, and is a member, that is a largely African-American city.  And I said, look, you know, I’m not — I cannot guarantee that whoever does this will bring it everywhere.  And they said, look, one of the things you’ve told us is how important this is for hospitals and doctors.  And the hospital in our community is the single biggest employer.  And if that helps attract better doctors and, you know, more people to work here, then we’re totally for it.

And, so, I think there are just these tradeoffs.  The fundamental thing — and this is where I think you and I both agree — is, cities should recognize that broadband is part of the destiny of their city.  In other words, just as access to railroads was in a different time, or access to roads were at a different time, or access to electricity, access to a certain kind of broadband is going to dramatically affect the destiny of the city.  And if cities want to be part of the big bandwidth revolution that’s on the horizon, they will have to do certain things to make sure that big bandwidth comes their way.


Chris:  I think that one of the things that I was just reminded of is that we both recognize the political dimensions of this, and we’re both in strong agreement that these decisions need to be made at a local level.  And I know that you’ve — in recent years, you’ve been a strong opponent of any sort of state regulations to preempt local authority.  But I think one of the things that worries me about — Gig-dot — about — an approach that many of the Gig.U cities have taken is that I’m not sure what kinds of political decisions they’ll be able to make, down the line, when they don’t really have any measure of control over the assets.


Blair:  Yes.


Chris:  And so, if — you know, if you have a — let’s just say, my city, to avoid picking on anyone — which is not a Gig.U city — if we had St. Paul partnering with a local company — which, I would hope would be the outcome, if it was to be a private company — you know, you have a situation where the city makes it really easy, and tries to bring people to the table, and builds a business case.  And then the private company may invest the money, and ultimately have ownership.  And then they’re going to be the ones that decide where the network goes, on what terms.  And that’s where, you know, for us, it’s not about just necessarily running a network.  We, quite frankly, don’t really care if the city runs the network or not.  Private providers have done a terrific job working with cities, in Princeton, Illinois; Indianola, Iowa; and a number of other places.  But we want to make sure that if there’s — that this is essential infrastructure, that if the city then decides in five years, well, this really isn’t reaching all the neighborhoods we want it to, that the city has a means of then making sure it does reach those areas — aside from just begging.


Blair:  Yeah.  Well, look, I — there are tradeoffs to any system that you use.  There are different incentives that provide — um, you know — or, there are different ways of structuring the transaction to do certain things.  And I think that, you know, these are — I wouldn’t say they are easy decisions.  I think you and I, honestly and honorably, probably, disagree on where we would draw some of those lines.  I think you want to emphasize city control.  Not necessarily managerial control.  But you want to keep the options.  There are tradeoffs.  So that, then, reduces the incentive to invest — in a network which is not certain, right?  I mean, you know, when Google went into Kansas City, they did not get a right to a monopoly in the same way that Time-Warner got a right to a monopoly when it got its cable franchise.

So, there are significant differences.  And if you cut off the incentives, you, at least initially, hurt the investment.  But you get the benefit, as you say, of controlling things down the road.  I’m very much in the mode of — and part of the reason we started Gig.U was, well, when we were working on the National Broadband Plan, what we saw was that, whereas America had benefited enormously from a competition between cable and telcos on both price and network functionality, over about a 15-year period, of driving wireline broadband improvements, that the network functionality part of that competition was kind of ending.  And that, for the first time since the beginning of the commercial Internet, there was no national wireline provider who was saying, I’m going to build a better network than the current best network.  And that that wasn’t going to get us where we needed to go.

I want to see a lot of experimentation.  I don’t know what, in the long term, is right.  I used to be, by the way, a municipal bond lawyer.  And I’m a deep believer in the power of cities, in part because they just are so much closer to the —  They may make mistakes, but they are closer to the voters, in a lot of different ways.  And therefore, they’re less likely to make big mistakes.


Chris:  Right.  We like to — we actually like to say that public ownership isn’t necessarily the right to get it right the first time, but it’s the right to correct mistakes.


Blair:  Yeah.  And so, I — you know, I see that.  I tend to think that, in the nature of this business —  And this is where it’s tricky.  There’s a lot of gray area.  Like I said at the beginning, we have a —  Most of the systems in this country are privately-financed.  But we expect a certain kind of public external benefits to come from them.  This isn’t like a McDonald’s.  There —  Though, ironically, McDonald’s is providing the Wi-Fi for a lot of kids to do their homework in these days.  But it’s a different kind of thing.  And I think we all struggle for what’s the right balance between public control and private control.  And the more public control you have, the more you can address certain issues.  But the more you cut off the incentive to invest privately.  So, I like the models that, so far, the Gig.U community have done.  There are risks down the road, that you identify.  I think that anyone who — I think if you believe you can eliminate all risks, you’re working in a world that I don’t know — I’ve never lived in.


Chris:  Right.


Blair:  But I do think — I think you can have a transaction that does produce community benefits, in a way that’s very beneficial.


Chris:  Yeah.  We do understand why Seattle and Chicago have opted to go with a Gig.U approach, rather than just, you know, either bonding for a massive project up-front or just finding the cash to do an incremental project.


Blair:  Right.


Chris:  There’s certainly — these local officials have to do a lot of soul-searching, I think, as to their priorities.  And then there’s just the simple fact that many of these investments will take longer than an election cycle.  And that’s sort of an Achilles’ heel of dealing with local governments, which is that, you know, they — if it’s going to take five years to build a network, to see real results, then there’s an incentive to not really do that, ’cause you may not get the benefit of that investment.


Blair:  I think that’s right.  And I do think it’s very, very tricky.  And there’s also a managerial problem, which is how do you — you know, these are very complicated businesses to run.  Customer service is difficult.  How do you get the talent to do that well?  It doesn’t always work in a government structure.  What’s interesting is, I think people really misunderstand the Kansas City deal with Google.  Because a lot of people think that Kansas City gave them all these things.  But here’s the thing that Kansas City didn’t give Google.  It didn’t spend any tax dollars.  It didn’t subsidize them.  It didn’t say, we’ll pay you money to do this.  That’s a — um — that’s a really important and interesting thing.  It also — it really allowed Google to experiment with the business model.  And I think that’s really valuable.

Now, interestingly — and this goes back to an earlier point you said — the incumbents are now arguing this universal service point.  And I think it’s a fair argument.  And I think we have to address it — ah, um — you know, clearly.  I’m totally in favor of making sure that everyone in the country has access to broadband.  And, indeed, the National Broadband Plan spent a lot of time on that.  But here’s what I don’t think we should do.  I don’t think we should use universal service as an excuse not to innovate, not to get better.  In other words, you know, we are where we are.  We haven’t really had a network — an announced network upgrade in several years.  And I don’t want to use universal service as a way of keeping everybody low.  I do think that we need some communities to — it troubles me that if you look at the fastest cities in the world, none of them are in the United States.  Because I think that that’s where innovation is going to come from.


Chris:  Well, I think, this reminds me of one of the responses I’ve had to your presentations — and maybe three, four years ago.  And sort of — and actually maybe even two years ago, with the National Broadband Plan, where I was sort of furious that I was not able to respond in any sort of a manner.


Blair:  Uh huh.


Chris:  Because, you know, I fully agree with you, if one says — if you take the existing universal service framework, or the Connect America fund, you know, I would agree with you that we should not try to turn those into getting everyone a gig.  Because those are broken programs, that I, quite frankly, think are tremendously wasteful, and don’t result in the kind of networks that rural people need anyway.  I think that they’re programs that should be redesigned.  And we’ll have that opportunity, I guess, with this discussion that we’re having, of how to do universal service.  But the frustration I have is that — you know, when we look at how we electrified everyone by recognizing the power of co-ops, and nonprofit business models in areas of low density, we haven’t learned that lesson again when it comes to telecom.  We’ve totally forgotten it.  And so, you know, I find myself agreeing with you, that, sort of, if we have to deal with a Washington, DC, program, then our universal service is probably going to waste a lot of money, and be way more costly than it could be.  But the alternative — AN alternative — would be to have a GOOD universal service program.  And so, it’s sort of — it’s a difficult argument to make, and I’m sort of wandering around right now.


Blair:  Yeah.  Look, I think it’s — I do think it’s hard.  I would note that I thought the FCC reform effort had a lot of good things in it.  But I do not believe that it is a once-in-a-generation transformation of universal service.  And part of the reason I don’t believe that is that, in fact, universal service in rural America, broadband is about to be transformed by AT&T and Verizon and Sprint and T-Mobile bringing 4G broadband — wireless broadband — into rural areas.  I don’t know how that will play out.  But I think it will have a dramatic impact on some of the rural providers, and particularly the co-ops.  And that when that plays out, undoubtedly we’re going to have to look at the system again.  I might note that, politically, I personally had a lot of debates with the rural folks.  And I know they were not happy with some of the recommendations I had.  I went to their convention, and debated some of their members.  And it was a lot of fun, and they were very, very gracious.  But, listen, I don’t think I convinced anyone I was right.  I just think it was a good conversation.  I would note, they’re actually — Gig.U, the Fiber-to-the-Home Council, Google, and the rural co-ops are all going to Kansas City —  and, Chris, I hope you’ll be there as well — right after Memorial Day, to have what I think is really the nation’s first conference on — I think it’s entitled “From Gigabit Envy to Gigabit Deployment.”  And it’s really the kind of bringing together those folks who are trying to look at how can communities control their destiny with this next upgrade.


Chris:  Yes.  I’ll be there.  I’m looking forward to it.  I can’t miss such a conference in the Midwest.


Blair:  Um hum.


Chris:  It’s nice to be remembered that those of us living in fly-over country can host a conference.  [laughs]


Blair:  Yeah.  Right.


Chris:  Um.  So let me just ask you, as we move toward wrapping up here, then, do you have any thoughts on the AT&T approach to the transition — this movement to IP?


Blair:  Well, first of  all, one of the things that we identified in the plan was that the country had to move all of our networks to IP.  And that the government was currently obligating certain providers to invest in the old TDM networks.  And that that — at some point, that had to stop.  It raises many, many difficult questions.  I think that AT&T, which just filed a petition and asked for a couple of waivers to run some experiments in a couple of wire centers, did the country a service by accelerating the FCC’s attention on this issue.  And I hope that the FCC lets them do the experiments, because I’m a big believer in experimentation.  An experiment is really worth a thousand pleadings.  And I would love to see what happens when you essentially allow them to turn off the TDM network in those wire centers.  Having said that, where I think the two things come together is that, at the end of the day, as we talked about at the beginning, we have a certain kind of arrangement between the public needs and the private investors.  And that — we have to work out a new agreement.  We have to have an understanding of what is it that we can really ask the private sector to do.  For example, 9-1-1 is not something that the private market would have come up with itself.  The requirement of making sure the networks are sustainable in a storm may not be something the private sector, by itself, would do.  Making sure that every classroom is linked is not necessarily something that the private sector would do.  Indeed, it is a public sector [laughs] need.  So, there are a variety of things — particularly when you understand the economics of network deployment, and how scale matters, and things like that.  So, I think the kind of efforts that you’re talking about greatly — and the efforts that, frankly, you’re doing — should greatly inform the FCC’s effort to figure out what is the new paradigm, as we move to an all-IP world.


Chris:  I have to raise an objection, just — I — the AT&T experiments.  I’ve — you know, I’ve seen the rural groups recoil in horror.  And I have to agree with them, to the extent that I’m very much afraid of an experiment that AT&T would design.  So, to the extent that there are experiments, I really hope the FCC is very careful to make sure that we know what we’re going to be learning, and that we know what risks there are.


Blair:  Look, I appreciate that.  My view is slightly different.  And I think we should be honest about it.  I’m not worried about how AT&T designs it.  I’m worried about how the FCC evaluates it.  In other words, if they design an experiment that’s fundamentally a Potemkin Village — it’s all fake — well, then it’s the FCC’s obligation to determine that it was fake.


Chris:  Um hum.


Blair:  Right?  But I — I really like experimentation.  I do think that, having been lobbied a lot, and having read lots of pleadings —  And then, it’s very interesting to contrast the kind of analysis that I see at the FCC and the kind of analysis that I saw when I was an analyst on Wall Street.  And there’s a seriousness of purpose when we’re talking about money [laughs] that I would like to see, you know, at the FCC.  But things there tend to get more theoretical.  And so, I agree that there’s a risk.  And this is — you know, this is a constant tension between the way you look at the world and the way I do.  There are certain risks that I’m willing to take that you think are perhaps too risky.  And vice versa.  But, to me, the problem is not how AT&T designs it.  It’s how the FCC evaluates it.  And as long as we understand that, we’ll get to a better place by having an experiment than we would if we simply had AT&T say, theoretically, if we just deregulate everything, everything will be fine.


Chris:  You’re — well, I have to agree with you in terms of, it’s up to the FCC.  Our frustration has long been that, with the size of the companies that we’re seeing, and the state of Washington, DC, that it’s somewhat hard to separate the FCC from the interests of the very powerful players.  Which is, honestly, one of the major reasons that we support public ownership rather than regulation.  It’s much like we’re seeing with the banks.  We’re not convinced that there is actually regulation that can work under the present political environment.  So, you know, we sort of recognize that there needs to be some regulation, even if it’s broken.  But, fundamentally, we think it’s smart for cities to figure out how they can make sure they’re protecting themselves at the local level, rather than relying on DC.


Blair:  Yeah.  Look, I appreciate what you’re saying.  And I think you’ve done a wonderful job providing an analysis that supports that point of view.  Where I think we disagree is, I do have more faith in the markets.  And that’s a function of a lot of different things.  I mean, look, I look at what Google is doing in Kansas City, and I look at what’s happening in Seattle, and I look at Chicago, and I’m — I’m a little bit more optimistic.  But, you know, I could be wrong.  [laughs]


Chris:  No.  And, you know, I — to some extent, I’m always confused when someone suggests that I’m not — don’t have faith in markets.  And, you know, I’m someone who has gone though a lot of opinions.  And I’ve given things —  One of the things people have always recognized about me is I think about things.  And I may change my mind.  And maybe I change my mind more than others.  Because I am open.  You know, I went through a period where the only thing I could think about was how markets failed.  And —


Blair:  Um hum.


Chris:  But the more I learned about markets, the more I recognized the ways in which, when they work, they’re incredible, and they’re just unbeatable.  But when I look at things like electricity, and when I look at telecom, the incentives of a few players, often from Wall Street, to make sure that there is no market — to make sure that there are very few providers, and that there’s basically an impossibility of new providers coming up, such that maybe a new provider may pop up, but they’ll quickly be subsumed by some form of monopoly or duopoly.  I, quite frankly, think that markets work wonders, but that we’re not heading toward a market of broadband.  I think we’re heading toward increased consolidation.  So, I’m curious what market you mean.


Blair:  Yeah.  It’s a fair question.  But what I mean, to be quite clear, is that I think that private capital will find a way to drive faster-cheaper-better broadband in the United States.


Chris:  How would you respond to me saying that it did that in Chattanooga?  Because it WAS private capital — um, funneled through, you know, bonds.  Bonds across the world, right?


Blair:  Right.  Right.  Well, look, I thought it was perfectly fine what Chattanooga did.  I have no problem with what Chattanooga did.  But, see, what I’d like to see is, you know, if a community believes — as Chattanooga believed — that they weren’t getting — that the existing providers weren’t giving them all they wanted, or that there was someone who had a better opportunity to do it, great.  I’d love to see more utilities get into this — into this market, because they obviously have a lot of assets that could be extremely valuable in producing faster-cheaper-better broadband.  I — maybe we don’t disagree in that sense.  I just think that, um, I wouldn’t recommend — I —

You know, it’s very easy for me to say that if I was in the state legislature, I would always vote against any bill that would restrict a city’s ability to participate in any way in this market.  That’s a philosophical view.  I think if I was on the city council, you know, you and I might find ourselves on opposite sides of the extent of that city participation.  But it really depends on the particular — you know, the particular circumstance.  When I read the story of Lafayette, I have a feeling that if I was on that city council, I would have voted to proceed as they proceeded.  But they tried a long time to get their folks — you know, to get their incumbents — to do more.  So, I think it’s — to me, it’s case by case.  The important thing, at this moment in time, for the country, is to make sure — and this is really at the heart of Gig.U — that we have some communities that drive that next generation, so that other communities can see it, to see a real test bed in action.  And so it’s great what Chattanooga is doing.  It’s great what Kansas City is doing.  It’s great what Seattle is doing.  It’s great what Chicago’s doing.  It’s great what the Research Triangle Park is doing.  I think that if I had written the chairman — Chairman Genachowski’s — speech to the League of Mayors — or the Conference of Mayors — I would have pointed to all of those places and saying, you ought to have your people taking a look at those things.  Do any of them work for you?  Is there a different model that works for you?  And, you know, some cities, by the way, they may be perfectly happy with what they have today.  And that’s great.  But I do think, as a country, to move forward, we have to make sure we have some of the fastest communities in the world in the United States.


Chris:  And I think we both agree there.  One of the things people don’t always realize is that I’m not an advocate for only a municipal monopoly.  I do see a continuing role for private-sector investment and ownership of a network.  I think most communities can support more than one.  In rural areas, I’d really like to see open access publicly-owned networks.  But how we get there is a really troublesome question.

I think this has been a really helpful conversation.  I really appreciate you taking all the time.


Blair:  Well, Chris, always a pleasure.  Always a pleasure reading your stuff.  Keep up the good work, even when we disagree.  I really appreciate it.


Lisa:  Thank you, Blair Levin, for taking the time to talk with us, and sharing another approach at expanding connectivity.  We encourage you to visit the project website at to learn more about how this program partners with research universities to advance innovation.  You can also visit and follow the “Gig.U” tag, to see our coverage.  We want your questions or comments.  E-mail us .  Follow us on Twitter to learn all about the most recent developments relating to community networks, broadband policy, and telecommunications.  Our handle is @communitynets .  This show was released on March 12th, 2013.  Thanks to D. Charles Speer & the Helix for their song, “Freddie’s Lapels,” licensed using Creative Commons.

This article is apart of MuniNetworks. The original piece can be found here