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Blair Levin and the Great Dallas Debate

National Broadband Plan Author Feels the Love in Dallas

I have been in the “telephone” industry for going on 17 years now, a period during which I have attended countless national and state association conventions and meetings.  Never - and I try not to throw around the “never” card too often - but never, ever have I been more entertained, more captivated, more engrossed, and simultaneously more uncomfortable than I was during the opening session of NTCA’s 2011 Annual Meeting and Expo being held this week at the Sheraton Dallas Hotel.  Frankly, I got wrapped up in a breakfast meeting and arrived late to Monday morning’s opening general session, missing the Saloon Girls, a “light-hearted musical comedy review” that was guaranteed to “put a smile” on my face.  My loss! 

I walked in to the general session about three-quarters of the way through an address by Congressman Pete Sessions of Texas.  I really didn’t listen to much of what the Congressman had to say as I was pre-occupied with finding a sliver of empty wall space (not a chance of finding an empty seat) in what was a jam-packed hall.  I don’t often attend NTCA conventions, so I was a bit taken aback by the sheer number of people in the audience.  After all, over the last few years I have been to several “conventions” where the handful of vendors selling their wares actually outnumbered telephone company attendees, in some cases by a multiple.  Not the case here!  From what I understand, more than 2,000 signed up to attend the NTCA convention and, from what I saw when I first walked in to that opening general session, that estimate seemed low.

I managed to finally tune in to what the Congressman had to say right at the tail end of his talk.  Initially I was concerned that my tardiness had caused me to miss something important.  But then, as Congressman Sessions wound down his pitch, his final words were something about “winning one for the Gipper.”  Perhaps I am judging the content of a presentation by a non-representative last-minute sound-bite, but I none-the-less found myself thinking, “Did he really just say that?”  A tad too smarmy for my taste.   

Next came an address by NTCA’s new ceo, Shirley Bloomfield.  In many ways it was the same old, same old, standard fare.  Shirley outlined the Association’s legislative and regulatory agenda, her goals and objectives for the coming year, how she is realigning the NTCA to meet the significant challenges the industry faces, etc.  Suffice it to say, Shirley is on the front line of the industry’s regulatory and legislative battles, and her plate is full. 

Then things started to get really good!  The Keynote Speaker was James Bradley, author of the #1 New York Times best-seller “Flags of Our Fathers.”  Bradley’s father was one of the six marines captured in the iconic photograph of the raising of the U.S flag on the top of Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima in February 1945.  The title of Bradley’s presentation was “Doing the Impossible.”  During a well-practiced presentation, Bradley entertained the crowd with stories about the background and heroics of the six marines depicted in that famous photograph as well as the seemingly insurmountable obstacles he faced getting his book published.  Generally, I’m not a big fan of the feel good, rah-rah, one size fits all motivational speech you typically hear at big conventions.  I understand their place and their purpose, but I’m still not a big fan.  But this one was different.  Perhaps it was because Bradley’s shtick was so very well-rehearsed and entertaining.  Perhaps it was because my dad served during WWII (Pops spent his time in France) and, like Bradley’s father, never seemed to want to dwell on the subject.  Or perhaps it was a patriotic and reverent response to, as Bradley indicated, what is arguably the most famous and inspirational photograph of all time.  Whatever it was, Bradley had me from the start.

Then things got even more interesting, or fun, or uncomfortable, depending, I guess, on your perspective.  The NTCA arranged for a “lively and frank point/counterpoint discussion of the FCC’s proposed national broadband plan and its impact on rural telecommunications.”  Randy Houdek of Highmore, S.D.-based Venture Communications Cooperative and Delbert Wilson of Ingram, Texas-based Hill Country Telephone Cooperative took the point for the rural industry.  Aspen Institute fellow and former FCC staffer Blair Levin, considered the architect and principal author of the National Broadband Plan, took the counterpoint. 

What followed was certainly both lively and frank.  At times, again depending on your perspective, it was also uncomfortable, rude, maybe even a little ugly. But what the “Great Dallas Debate” may have lacked in decorum and civility, it certainly made up in raw (sometimes too raw) entertainment value.

There was a lot said during the debate, some of which was wise, some of which was misguided, some of which resonated, and some of which was nothing more than pandering to a pro-industry audience.  Levin indicated that he found rate of return regulation “economically and philosophically abhorrent” and the rural industry was “living in a bubble.” Houdek attacked Levin’s use of the $20,000 per-line support received by one, 17-line RLEC as an extreme, and non-representative example of how the current system distributes support.  Wilson argued for expanding the contribution base to include the likes of Google.  “Anyone that uses the network, benefits from the network, should pay for the network,” said Wilson.  

But from my perspective, the most significant and important thing said during the debate came from Levin, who offered the industry a very candid, pragmatic, and increasingly obvious observation.  According to Levin, the deal the industry could have struck two years ago was better than the deal the industry can strike today, which is better than the deal the industry will be able to strike in the future. “The cost of inaction is far greater than you think,” warned Levin. 

It is difficult to say how the Great Dallas Debate will affect the larger and more important debate regarding the National Broadband Plan.  Will it help rally the industry?  Will it further galvanize D.C policy makers’ reported increasingly negative view of RLECs?  Was it nothing more than good theater?  That’s a whole other debate!                                     

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