Shortly after being designated as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Ajit Pai announced (0) his moon shot: closing (1) the digital divide. In a refreshing and pragmatic break from central planning of the broadband economy, the FCC launched the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (2) (BDAC), a diverse group of experts tasked with making recommendations on how to accelerate the deployment of high-speed internet access by reducing and removing regulatory barriers to infrastructure investment. To be sure, the US is the global leader in broadband infrastructure investment, accounting for (3) one-quarter of the world’s total, but the process to deploy infrastructure could be improved.
Why open innovation
The BDAC demonstrates the open innovation model to broadband deployment policy, recognizing that the solutions to closing the digital divide reside not necessarily in the FCC, but in the knowledge of a multitude of actors on the ground. Henry Chesbrough defined open innovation with his groundbreaking book (4) after years of studying IBM and how the company reinvented itself by looking outside its walls for partners for new products and services. A metaphor for the modernization of government, open innovation impugns the dogma that regulators know better than consumers. Thus, the BDAC employs the open innovation model by looking for the answers outside of its regulatory silos.
A bottom-up, not top-down approach
Similarly, open innovation does not assume that the managers at the top of the organization have all the answers. Indeed, the best ideas frequently come from the bottom of the organization or outside the organization altogether. The previous FCC employed a top-down, centrally planned model, in which the regulator mandated the speed, price, and other parameters of broadband. It’s not a surprise that a large number of Americans are still not connected (5) to the internet, as top-down, one-size-fits-all internet service does not fit the needs of everyone.
The new FCC recognizes that meeting the vastly different broadband needs of 320 million Americans requires a bottom-up approach. That more than 380 people volunteered to serve on the BDAC exemplifies the interest and enthusiasm to help the FCC achieve its goal. The initial committee is comprised of 29 members with 58 more to join the working groups. Notably, the committee includes several dynamic women working in broadband. The BDAC itself is chaired by Elizabeth Pierce, CEO of Quintillion, a company engaged in one of the world’s most important and difficult broadband projects, laying a submarine cable around the coast of Alaska (6). Vice Chair Kelleigh Cole is the director of the Utah Broadband Outreach Center (7), which innovates with an advanced mapping of broadband to economic development (8) and residential broadband availability (9). Arkansas-based Elizabeth Bowles, head of the web-services firm Aristotle, is an advocate for fixed wireless solutions, the “third pipe (10) to the home.” Valerie Fast Horse represents the Coeur d’Alene Tribe in Idaho, serves as the information technology director for the tribe’s broadband network, and is the founder of its videocasting platform (11). Betsy Huber, president of the Pennsylvania chapter of National Grange (12), an organization of America’s family farmers, advocates for free and sponsored data programs that benefit consumers by expanding mobile broadband capabilities to increase internet adoption and access to broadband across rural and underserved America. (13)
Americans desire more private-sector competition, not utility regulation (14), for broadband. To that end, the BDAC is composed of five subcommittees targeted to address deployment in municipalities and states, competitive access to broadband infrastructure, the regulatory barriers to broadband, and federal siting. The subcommittees are tasked by professionals engaged in these challenges on the ground. For example, the mayor of San Jose, California is tasked with helping develop a model code for broadband deployment in municipalities. The vice chair of the subcommittee on the model code for deployment in states is the Honorable Karen Charles Peterson, (15) commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Cable.
An estimated 20 percent of infrastructure is not deployed because of regulatory barriers. This is an affront to underrepresented populations who need broadband to participate in American life. To this end, the FCC has wisely tapped veteran civil rights activist Kim Keenan, president and CEO of the Multicultural Media, Telecom, and Internet Council, to serve as vice chair of the subcommittee on removing state and local regulatory barriers to broadband deployment (16).
The group is rounded out by several exemplary individuals and stakeholders from places such as the LGBT Technology Partnership and Institute, Rocket Fiber of Detroit, infrastructure providers, power companies, the National Exchange Carrier Association, and a range of technology companies working in 5G, distributed networks, local high-definition television, and smart cities platform technologies. Recognized academics working in the law, economics, and engineering of broadband will also participate, including Brent Skorup (17), Geoff Manne (18), and Christopher Yoo (19), whose 1 World Connected project (20) is pioneering the data-driven research to enable billions to get online. Representatives of the FCC’s wireline and wireless bureaus are also part of the team. This team of experts represents a diverse set of viewpoints and backgrounds — it also represents a big step forward, away from a top-down regulatory model and toward a more connected America with an open innovation approach.