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Blair Levin to Leave the FCC

Blair Levin, who headed the FCC’s Omnibus Broadband Initiative (OBI) for the past year and who was the principle architect of the National Broadband Plan, announced yesterday that he’s leaving the FCC on May 7 to join the Aspen Institute, a large and prestigious think tank.

Levin created the OBI from scratch. He moved in to the FCC, but he hired many new staff. He adopted new procedures for gathering public input, including blogging, “staff workshops”, and what amounted to frequent cold calls to people in business and academia to solicit views and information. The OBI was not your father’s FCC proceeding!

Levin also drew a dauntingly broad scope for the effort, and the OBI staff continued to expand that scope almost until the last minute. The proceeding, and the Plan, addressed broadband technology, deployment, services, adoption, financing, and usage. It asked how broadband affects other institutions and industries, from broadcasting, cable, wireless, and voice services to education, politics, energy and the environment, to name just a few.

Levin’s efforts drew enthusiastic support from some quarters and criticism from others. Some disliked his unorthodox procedural approach and others welcomed it. Some who agreed with his positions questioned his procedures, and vice versa. Whatever one thinks of the procedure or the recommendations, the National Broadband Plan is a remarkable document – comprehensive, polished and beautifully written and presented.

The most polarizing issue was a proposal to reallocate broadcast spectrum for wireless broadband use. I’ve questioned some aspects of the broadband plan, especially whether proponents of more broadband spectrum have really made their case. But I’ve been awed by Levin’s ability to “shake things up” in a town where the status quo can last for decades.

Reactions to Levin’s announcement have been as mixed as views of the National Broadband Plan. I’m disappointed to see him go. Levin is one of the smartest, hardest working, most effective, and best-intentioned people to work at the FCC (and that’s a big club). I disagree with some of his views, but I’ve never doubted his sincerity or the honesty of his motives.

Levin didn’t start the debate over broadcast spectrum – that began in the 1980s – and it won’t end on May 7. But he focused the issue and gave it legs. The country is now having a debate about the future of broadcasting that would have seemed unthinkable a year ago.

I’m an optimist — perhaps a delusional optimist. But if downsizing the nation’s broadcasting service is suddenly thinkable today, maybe real deregulation of broadcasting, including much-needed ownership reform, is also thinkable. The FCC’s Future of Media proceeding essentially asks that question.

I’ve harbored hope that ongoing engagement on “the spectrum issue” will eventually lead to grounds-up rethinking of the broadcast ownership rules. Broadcast regulation needs some serious shaking up, and the constituencies around many of those regulations are honed in the art of the status quo. Levin demonstrated an uncanny ability to reset people’s conceptions about what is and isn’t achievable. Broadcasters could use some of that energy focused on ownership rules which artificially limit their participation in a digital broadband future. He’s leaving, but perhaps someone will learn from Levin how to pull off something as ambitious as repealing anachronistic broadcast regulations. I hope so. And I hope the Aspen Institute knows what it’s getting into!