Communities have to take steps to remove bandwidth as a constraint on innovation, according to Blair Levin.

Levin is one of the premier communications strategists in the United States who lead in the creation of the National Broadband Plan released in March 2010. He now serves as executive director of Gig.U.

The University Community Next Generation Innovation Project, or Gig.U, is a broad-based group of more than 30 leading research universities from across the country with a mission to accelerate the deployment of ultra-high-speed networks to leading U.S. universities and their surrounding communities. These improvements to these networks, according to Gig.U’s mission statement, will drive economic growth and stimulate a new generation of innovations addressing critical needs, such as health care and education.

Levin talked here locally about the implementation of the National Broadband Plan, Gig.U, US UCAN, and what’s to come in addressing big data / big broadband needs in North Carolina and nationwide:

What are you most proud of from the National Broadband Plan?

The purpose of the plan was to provide a framework for broadband policy debates; and, in particular, targets to shoot at and to shoot for. In this regard, the plan has been very successful. Almost every critical debate, including spectrum, public safety, universal service, inter-carrier compensation, adoption, and many others has been framed by the fact base and analysis of the plan. While I personally may have disagreements with some of the details of the outcomes, I am highly confident that all the outcomes were improved by the work we did with the plan. In short, the plan was not about a single recommendation but rather about a process; and, in that regard, it succeeded.

What about more specific accomplishments?

It’s pretty great our $20 million plan has led to one idea adopted by congress that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, will generate $20 billion for the country (along with) a series of recommendations adopted by the FCC, which could save rate payers tens of billions over time … but, I think the most underappreciated accomplishment is probably the idea that became the United States Unified Community Anchor Network (US UCAN). Ten years from now I think the bandwidth created by that network, and the fact that it creates that level of bandwidth all around the country, will be seen as a key catalyst for helping America succeed in the dawning era of big data/big bandwidth.

What does “big broadband” mean to you?

To me, big broadband means the amount of bandwidth necessary to remove bandwidth as a constraint on innovation, productivity, and world economic leadership. That amount may vary from area to area, from time to time, and from user to user, but the principle remains the same.

What regions in the U.S. do you believe are ready to thrive in the coming era of big data?

Those with the human capital of a workforce with a skill set in analyzing data, the physical capital of extensive fiber, available spectrum sufficient to enable real-time collaboration with big data, and a critical mass of enterprises in those sectors in which information is most critical – such as health care, education, software, etc. – will be ready. As to which specific communities that includes, while I wouldn’t provide a comprehensive list, I can say with confidence that the RTP area is high on that list.

What would you recommend to a region (rural or urban) that is concerned about its ability to meet its broadband infrastructure needs in the coming decade?

Every community should be asking about whether it needs an upgrade to meet those needs. In answering the question, it should be looking at whether current market forces are likely to provide that upgrade. If not, the community should understand the extent that the way it organizes its assets, its demand, and its rules affect the math of investment and should aspire to change as is necessary to affect the math in a positive way. In this regard we now have models in Maine, Florida, Ohio, and Michigan for how local communities can organize themselves. Each is different, but each offers other communities examples of how to think about meeting the future broadband needs.

What are some of the key drivers of big broadband use, and what should we expect to see in five years?

The truthful answer is no one knows. The answer will be determined by innovations that have not yet been developed. What we can know is that the old world of analog voice – in which the policy idea was everyone gets the same thing (dial-tone) everywhere at the same price – is not going to work in the era of bandwidth. Think about it this way. Twenty-five years ago, the farmer and doctor in rural Iowa needed the same thing – a dial tone. Today, their needs are different. The farmer needs great mobility service to be able to connect to critical data while outside and moving while the doctor needs great fixed connectivity to review MRIs with experts in distant cities. The key is for communities to understand that to succeed they will have to take steps to remove bandwidth as a constraint on innovation, productivity and leadership, but the analysis of what kind of bandwidth and how to deliver it will vary from community to community.

Can you tell us more about your new work with Gig.U?

In short, Gig.U is coalition of leading research universities who have come together to accelerate the deployment of next generation broadband networks and services. In less than a year, armed with nothing more than the power of ideas and in an environment in which there has been no new capital investment into last-mile wireline assets, we have launched a number of projects in Maine, Florida, Ohio, and Michigan. We also saw the first multi-community gigabit deployment in the United States, involving a $200 million private-sector commitment (read story in The New York Times). And, recently, we began an affiliated program (AIR.U) to upgrade the connectivity to rural colleges and universities (in alliance with Microsoft, Google, and higher education groups representing more than 500 communities throughout the United States). Gig.U helped catalyzed these actions, but the lion’s share of the credit belongs to those who did the lion’s share of the work -and that is work done in the local communities.

What will Gig.U mean for North Carolina and elsewhere?

In the middle of the last century, Gov. Hodges and other visionary leaders in North Carolina gave the state a great gift by recognizing the value of the three research universities and investing in a way that leveraged that value for the good of everyone in the state. I look back on that and I am amazed and humbled by the power of the vision. I also look forward and realize that for that vision to continue to serve North Carolina, the new table stakes require those at the cutting edge of the information economy to have cutting-edge networks. Gig.U is an opportunity for RTP to extend its significant advantages in being a world-leading hub of economic activity around those sectors that need the best minds to collaborate, both in the hallways and around the world.

Recently you used a term, “high-performance knowledge exchange” – what does that mean to you and for folks in North Carolina?

Most of what we do in the day is exchange information, and then store it, analyze it, rethink courses of action based on it, and disseminate new information in a constant feedback loop. This is not just true of the high-tech sector. It is true of many sectors, from retail and manufacturing to construction and agriculture. We now have the ability to exchange information in ways unthinkable just a generation ago. We can do so anytime and anywhere at lower prices. One can envision a world of high-performance knowledge in the future where several doctors around the world collaborate to analyze a genetic sequence of a patient; or millions of children use Khan Academy to learn chemistry; or linking the data of all the Wal-Marts worldwide for the real-time determination of sales order; or a police department simultaneously analyzing video feeds of 1,000 cameras to determine police dispatches in a major urban area. In short, high-performance knowledge exchange is the ability to share information more effectively, in a way that drives better outcomes, and has become the table stakes for economic leadership in this century.

How would you describe the current landscape of connectivity now vs. 5-10 years from now?

If we succeed, faster, cheaper, better. I don’t want to think about if we fail. But consider this, International studies on wireline bandwidth use differ but all suggest we are mid-tier and declining. No American communities are hubs of the kind of world-leading bandwidth sufficient enough to birth big bandwidth businesses. Those communities are instead in other countries. Moreover, for the first time since American ingenuity birthed the commercial Internet, we do not have a single national wireline provider with plans to deploy a better network. For most Americans, five years from now, the best network they will have is the network they have today. The best networks and the innovations they enable will live instead in other countries as well. But, rather than thinking about what if we fail, let’s figure out how to succeed.