News Center

Finding Common Ground: A Path Forward for the FCC

By: Mike Montgomery
As featured on The Daily Kos

Two of my favorite Members of Congress recently went toe-to-toe at a hearing on the FCC Process Reform Act. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) often agree on technology policy issues, but on the issue of whether and how to reform the FCC, they clearly disagree.

That’s not to say the hearing wasn’t illuminating, however. Here are some key takeaways:

General Thoughts from Eshoo and Walden

Rep. Eshoo called on the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee to focus on shaping public policies that encourage private investment in communications infrastructure. She also highlighted the need for a renewed focus on job creation. It’s a common refrain from someone who truly understands the merits of a strong, vibrant Silicon Valley, and Rep. Eshoo should be applauded for maintaining her focus on jobs and the economy.

For his part, Rep. Walden warned that the FCC is “becoming more of a political institution and less an expert agency.” Given some of the Commission’s recent words and actions when it comes to spectrum screens, auctions, and secondary transactions, there is certainly some credence to Walden’s statement.

Some Smart Changes to the FCC

Former Commissioner Robert McDowell and George Washington University law professorRichard Pierce both testified that the FCC should be removed from the merger review process, thereby allowing experts at the Department Justice to maintain their role as the rightful authority on antitrust law. This sentiment echoes that of economist Hal Singer at a recent Silicon Valley public policy event, where he argued that the FCC should focus its efforts on protecting consumers.

Meanwhile, Harvard Business Review author Larry Downes testified that an agency like the FCC cannot easily “predict an increasingly unpredictable future,” especially in the technology sector. The FCC, he said, should not “design what it calls ‘prophylactic’ remedies for consumer harms that have yet to occur.” In other words, the Commission needs to stop trying to police potential problems before they happen, a la Tom Cruise in Minority Report.

Where the FCC Should Be Focused

The FCC has taken some small steps toward reform, such as speeding the process for secondary market transaction approvals — a welcome change in what has historically been a long, drawn-out process. But that’s not to say the Commission can slow down now—there is still work to be done to increase spectrum availability for mobile broadband for consumers and to prioritize the transition to next-generation advanced broadband networks.


The Issues in a Nutshell

It’s hard to disagree with Rep. Eshoo, who hit the nail on the head when she said, “Let’s work together to craft policies that will create jobs for innovators, promote investment in infrastructure across the country, and technological advances that help American families.”

Hopefully, when and if Tom Wheeler is confirmed as the next FCC Chairman, the Commission will work with all involved to do just that.

Surf and turf wars in Silicon Valley

By: Mike Montgomery 
As featured in The Hill

At first blush, the event held by Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy entitled “The Broadband Technology Explosion: Rethinking Communications Policy for a Mobile Broadband World” could have easily seemed like a wonk fest for public policy nerds. But for those of us who made the trip to Silicon Valley’s Quadrus Conference Center on Sand Hill Road, the discussion was anything but boring. Quite the opposite, in fact, since the topics being hashed out are critical to the future of the Valley.

Chief among those topics was spectrum, specifically the best way to make more airwaves available for mobile broadband. By happenstance, the Pepperdine event coincided with the news that Instagram was launching new video capabilities, dubbed Instavine on social media as it was launched to compete with Twitter’s video platform, Vine. As this news lit up Twitter, I asked the panel how video from Instragram’s billion-plus users will affect wireless networks.

“[It] will create a larger load,” AT&T’s Richard Clarke replied. “We’re swimming fast, but the current is moving far faster.”

This demand for ever-increasing amounts of data (the “current” that Clarke spoke of) is driving carriers to pursue more wireless spectrum. The FCC plans to auction off 300 MHz of new spectrum to these wireless companies, but the panelists — including Harvard Business Review’s Larry Downes, Navigant Economics’ Hal Singer, and Pepperdine’s James Prieger — were doubtful that the full 300 MHz will ever reach the auction podium.

Put another way, the FCC’s efforts will only go so far, and unless the commission also eases restrictions on the secondary market transactions for spectrum, shortcomings will continue to exist. And these shortcomings, the panelists were sure to point out, could have a very real effect on the health of the wireless industry.

While no one believes the FCC should get out of the spectrum regulation business, there was broad agreement at the event that the commission needed to rethink its definition of public interest when it comes to the airwaves. Mobile broadband has been such a game changer, smartphones and tablets so explosively popular, that the current definition of public interest for spectrum is quickly falling out of stepwith consumer interests.

Singer in particular opined that the FCC should focus less on antitrust laws in its approach to regulation and instead focus more protecting consumers, a role they are uniquely qualified to fill.

Singer’s point has implications for spectrum policy. By focusing on consumer  to all wireless carriers regardless of their size, the commission will not place itself in the undesirable position of picking winners and losers in a thriving and highly competitive market. Will keeping auctions open, along with the FCC staying within its regulatory lanes, best serve consumer interests? At the Pepperdine event, the answer was a definite yes.

Silicon Valley Weighs in on Wheeler

By: Mike Montgomery
As seen in the Huffington Post 

There’s a new sheriff in town.

Or at least there soon will be as the Senate is likely to give Tom Wheeler the nod as FCC Chairman. Wheeler, former chief executive of the National Cable and Television Association and, most recently, a venture capitalist, seems to have left a good impression during this week’s Senate hearing. As Tony Romm reported in Politico:

The initial takeaway from a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Tuesday is that Wheeler’s background as a cable and wireless lobbyist — once considered by some a liability — might instead prove valuable at the helm of the nation’s top telecom agency.

During the Senate hearing, Wheeler said his extensive business experience would “make me a better chairman,” and he will surely need to tap into that experience if his tenure is going to be an effective one. Wheeler will be taking the reins of the FCC during a fascinating and challenging time. Gone are the days when the Commission’s biggest worries were wardrobe malfunctions during live broadcasts. Today’s FCC faces a number of critical decisions that will have a profound effect on the powerhouse that is America’s tech industry.

For Silicon Valley especially, Wheeler’s steerage will be important to keep an eye on. One of his chief concerns must be fostering an environment that continues to inspire innovation and investment for the greater good. Or, as Nick Allen, co-founder of SideCar, told me, “Wheeler should be pro-innovation and make sure Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have the ability and tools to implement new ideas and new technologies to solve problems.”

Here, in no particular order (because they’re all equally important), are some of the issues Wheeler and his Commission will be tackling in the coming years.

Clearing the Air

The FCC’s upcoming spectrum auction is aimed at providing wireless companies with the airwaves they desperately need to provide service to their smartphone-addicted customers. Revenues from the auction will help fund FirstNet, the nationwide interoperable public safety network for first responders.

Wheeler can go a long way toward keeping our mobile market booming by ensuring that every qualified bidder can participate without restrictions. This will also help maximize auction revenue that can help the federal government will raise the money to fully fund FirstNet.

Speeding IP

The day when America’s networks are all-Internet based is coming. The only question is when.

Wheeler and the FCC can help accelerate the expansion of next-generation broadband networks — and encourage further adoption of current and future technologies– by focusing on creating a smart regulatory environment. An environment that encourages the private sector investment needed to upgrade networks with a regulatory framework better suited for the Internet age.

Technology guru Kim Polese, Chairman of ClearStreet, is a champion for increased next-gen broadband deployment across the country. “Chairman-nominee Wheeler can help ensure our nation’s prosperity by prioritizing the implementation of a ubiquitous, high speed, affordable national broadband infrastructure, which will help to accelerate innovation and entrepreneurship and drive economic opportunity and prosperity for all Americans,” said Polese.

Easing Transactions

The FCC’s spectrum auctions will offer some relief for congested wireless networks. So will President Obama’s recent focus on freeing up some federal spectrum for consumers to use for mobile broadband.

Unfortunately, both initiatives are going to take more time than most would like. In the meantime, wireless providers, who are already facing clogged networks, need the flexibility to work together in order to meet the needs of their customers.

That’s why it’s important for Wheeler’s FCC to ease the regulatory hurdles for free market spectrum deals that will help ensure providers can meet consumer demand more quickly.

Glad-handing the Tech Community

Former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski left some big shoes to fill, especially when it comes to working with the tech community in Silicon Valley and beyond.

With technology increasingly becoming a driving force in America’s economy, the FCC needs to work with tech companies big and small in order to put forward policies that benefit both the tech ecosystem and consumers. As Topher Conway, a Partner at famed venture fund SV Angel, told me, “Wheeler needs to make sure he reaches out to Silicon Valley in order to understand the unique problems we face. That way he can help solve those problems in Washington.”

Serial entrepreneur Jamie Daves, Founder and CEO of LearnerX, was specific about one of those unique problems. “The emerging era often labeled the ‘Internet of Things’ will put unprecedented pressure on the FCC as an avalanche of new, connected devices come into the market,” Daves told me. “Chairman Wheeler should lead in reforming the application and approval process so that consumers can benefit from these new products and services, and companies can rely on a timely and efficient system.”

Freeing up more spectrum for consumers, enabling the transition to all-Internet based networks, and working collaboratively with the tech industry to ensure an investment-friendly framework — there’s no doubt Wheeler’s dance card will certainly be full if he is confirmed to lead FCC. But by putting forward a manageable, tech-focused agenda, he can oversee a Commission that continues to encourage private investment, spur further innovation, and grow the economy. It won’t be easy, but Wheeler appears to be the right man for the job.

Obama Demands Expanded Airwaves

By Mike Montgomery
As seen on The Huffington Post  

Last week, the White House dropped a broadband bombshell in the form of a series of initiatives aimed at freeing up government-controlled spectrum for wireless providers. It also released a new report, “Four Years of Broadband Growth,” which is brimming with positive news about our nation’s broadband infrastructure.

It was a good week for both consumers and our country’s vibrant tech industry.

In Silicon Valley, President Obama’s focus on spectrum was especially welcome. In many ways, mobile broadband has become the lifeblood of our tech community. But as wireless providers are increasingly strapped for spectrum — and consumers continue to embrace mobile broadband at an unprecedented pace — there have been valid concerns that the blood would stop flowing. Or at the very least, that clogged airwaves would give the local tech industry chest pains.

As the single largest holder of spectrum, the U.S. government has the power to ensure America remains at the forefront of mobile broadband. The FCC’s upcoming spectrum incentive auctions have the potential to alleviate some of the congestion wireless providers face, but the fact of the matter is more action will be needed to free up spectrum, and needed quickly, in order to keep up with ever-growing consumer demand for advanced broadband-enabled services and applications.

While you could easily take the cynical view and declare allocating more spectrum for wireless is long overdue, it’s worth remembering that mobile broadband — and the mobile app industry it has sparked — is still in its infancy. The smartphone revolution only really began six years ago, after all, and outside of a select few visionaries, few had anticipated the monumental shift that has followed.

If wireless providers were caught somewhat flat footed by the sudden surge in demand for data on their networks, they’ve been investing billions to catch up. As the White House broadband report shows, annual investment in wireless networks jumped by more than 40 percent from 2009 to 2012 — from $21 billion a year to $30 billion. At the same time, the report finds, investment in Europe was static, and in Asia — including China — it only increased by 4 percent.

For Silicon Valley, all this investment in wireless infrastructure has helped inspire a wave of innovation and economic growth. And with more than 500 million connected devices and counting in America, we may only be at just the beginning of the mobile broadband boom. That’s what makes President Obama’s focus on spectrum so critical. More spectrum will mean more powerful networks, which will mean more innovation, which will inspire more investment in more powerful broadband networks.

As long as government policies continue to encourage investment in our nation’s broadband networks, this cycle of investment and innovation has the potential to become an even bigger economic powerhouse. President Obama has called for every part of America to be connected to the digital age. For Silicon Valley, and the country’s other tech hubs, that’s a goal worth achieving.

You Give Gov a Bad Name

With an FTC investigation in the rear-view mirror, it’s no surprise that Google’s Larry Page took a few potshots at government regulators and their inability to keep up with the dynamism of the tech sector during the company’s recent I/O event.

The question is, were his criticisms valid? And the answer, as anyone with a passing knowledge of how that beast known as bureaucracy routinely punishes innovation knows, is a resounding yes.

Consider, for example, CALinnovates’ member company SideCar, whose business model is regulated by turn-of-the-century laws. Seriously. Regs placed on the books when no one could have fathomed mobile applications would even exist, let alone disrupt the world of… well, anything… are hamstringing a company that encourages people to carpool.

If hopelessly outdated laws are creating regulatory uncertainty for companies like SideCar, it’s easy to imagine the constant migraines Page constantly nurses as head of Google. While the tech giant has certainly earned its fair share of government scrutiny over the years, there’s no denying they’re one of the most innovative companies in the world. And that innovation, that eagerness to push the boundaries, often hits the roadblock of slow-moving regulators.

As Page told the audience at I/O, “There are many exciting, important things that we can do that we can’t do because they’re illegal and they’re not allowed by regulation.” For tech enthusiasts, such words inspire visions of Jetsons-like secrets locked away in a lab behind a wall of red tape that could likely never see the light of day.

No one argues that regulations are unnecessary. But everyone should be able to agree that the current speed at which regulations evolve is laughable at best, potentially disastrous at worst. Technology simply moves too quickly for the old ways of thinking. That’s why Page called for “mechanisms to allow experimentation,” an interesting and meritorious hypothesis that would allow technologists to run beta tests prior to the need to navigate the regulatory obstacle course. Allowing these test trials, he told the crowd, would allow the kinks to be worked out while assuring consumer safety and privacy.

Page’s thoughts could easily apply to companies like SideCar, or to any number of mobile payment start-ups under heavy regulatory scrutiny. We live and work in a rapidly evolving society. Ideas multiply and platforms morph seemingly overnight. History has shown that when our technology changes, we change along with it. Change isn’t always easy, but no matter the disruption, we adapt. If we’re going to keep moving forward, if companies like Google and SideCar are going to continue to thrive, we need government regulations that adapt along with us.

Technology sprints. Regulators need to keep up or work with the tech sector to find solutions. Otherwise, no one is going to reach the finish line.

Slow and Steady Doesn’t Win the Race | Why Innovators are Sprinting to D.C.

As Featured on TechZulu
By: Mike Montgomery

According to Google Maps, it would take the average person 915 hours — or a little over 38 days — to walk from Washington D.C. to San Francisco. That’s without sleep, presumably, or even bathroom breaks. Just miles upon miles of constant, seemingly endless trudging. On the bright side, you’d be able to enjoy at least one ferry ride along the way.

In contrast, a direct flight from our nation’s capital to the Bay Area clocks in at just over five hours. Long enough to watch a couple movies on your iPad or plow through the latest Grisham on your Kindle. Sure, you’ll be a little cramped, but at least you’ll get a complimentary beverage. More importantly, you won’t burn an entire day — let alone a month — just getting to your destination.

To put this tortured metaphor I’m constructing out of its misery, when it comes to California’s vibrant tech community, regulators in Washington are much like the person trekking across country on foot. Meanwhile, our tech community is constantly taking flight — until they suddenly find themselves grounded.

Take car service Uber, which has found itself fighting through regulatory gridlock in a number of markets. Or house sharing startup Airbnb, which has been continually whacked by regulators wielding dusty regulations cooked up before the age of dial-up.

Paul RosenzweigOne man who knows all too well how regulatory molasses can stifle innovation is Paul Rosenzweig, attorney and founder of Red Branch Consulting in Washington, D.C. A regular moderator and panelist for Stanford, he knows his tech policy backwards and forwards. He’s also a Chemical Oceanographer — fitting, given how hard it can be just to navigate the regulatory waters.

“In a world where notice and comment rulemaking takes 18-24 months to complete,” Rosenzweig says, “our system for making policy is simply ill-suited for the task. Disruption can be a major headache for regulators.”

Since regulators are unlikely to speed up anytime soon, the tech community is at constant risk of their innovations becoming mired in 20th Century quicksand. That places the burden on them to move forward with their next big idea well aware that they’re likely to hit a wall of outdated regulations. The key, Rosenzweig points out, is to identify as many hurdles as you can beforehand.

“When you have a brilliant idea,” Rosenzweig says, “your natural instinct is to set sail with it as soon as possible. But in this age when everything is connected, governments are as slow to react as ever, and privacy is a major concern, the best thing to do is take a deep breath and accept how the process works.”

The good news is that there are few regulatory issues that can’t be solved creatively. Laws can be complicated and burdensome, but they can also evolve. “Regulators very rarely want to stop a technology in its tracks,” Rosenzweig says. “The trick is to make them understand what your technology does, and then work with them to address any regulations that might hold you back.”

In other words, don’t race ahead of the powers that be in Washington. Because chances are, you’re already way ahead of them.

Competitive Field of Spectrum Bidders Benefits Everyone

As featured on Daily Kos 
By: Mike Montgomery

$12 billion.

That’s a lot of clams, even to the federal government. But that’s approximately how much the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will be leaving on the table if they restrict some bidders during their upcoming spectrum incentive auctions, according to economists Robert J. Shapiro, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, and Coleman Bazelon. In their study published by Georgetown University, “The Economic Implications of Restricting Spectrum Purchases in the Incentive Auctions,” the trio warn that limiting just two participants — Verizon and AT&T — from taking part in spectrum auctions could “reduce auction revenues by about 40 percent.”

But wait, there’s more. The group also estimates that forcing certain providers to watch from the sidelines could raise consumer bills by 9 percent. In short, the federal government will be refusing money, and consumers will be paying more money for their wireless service.

If that sounds backward to you, you’re not alone.

The fact of the matter is providers big and small desperately need more spectrum to meet the customers’ demands. The unprecedented popularity of smartphones and tablets — and all the mobile data their owners use — are taxing networks. It’s a problem former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski called “America’s looming spectrum crisis.” And unless more airwaves are freed up for wireless use soon, the word “looming” will no longer apply.

Congess’ bold incentive auctions — which, in a nutshell, will enable broadcasters to voluntarily sell their spectrum holdings in exchange for compensation — are aimed at helping alleviate this problem. On paper, the auctions could be a boon for both the broadcasters and the federal government, and wireless providers will be able to breathe a bit easier knowing their networks won’t suddenly seize up due to overcapacity. Call it a win-win-win.

Actually, call it four wins. The tech industry will also benefit, since more spectrum will mean more powerful and reliable wireless network capabilities. Bigger pipes, as they say, for bigger ideas.

But in order for us to rack up all these wins, the FCC must ensure the same rules apply to every bidder across the board. Restricting some carriers from being able to purchase the spectrum they need at auction won’t foster competition; if anything, it fosters the spirit of uncompetitive behavior.

Whatever framework the FCC decides upon should depend on two factors: getting the most bang for the spectrum buck, and perhaps more importantly, ensuring that those bidding are able to put newly acquired spectrum to use quickly and efficiently. After all, airwaves purchased and locked in the vault won’t help anybody.

That’s what makes the idea of restricting some providers from fully participating in the spectrum auctions about more than the potential loss of billions in much needed revenue for the federal government. In the end, consumers — the very ones the FCC are theoretically trying to help — will end up losing the most, either through higher prices or declining service quality. Those are two consequences consumers shouldn’t have to face.

View the article on the Daily Kos website here

Broadband + Education = Bright Future

There was some good news on the education front, courtesy of The White House:

“Today, President Obama called on the Federal Communications Commission to take the steps necessary to build high-speed digital connections to America’s schools and libraries, ensuring that 99 percent of American students can benefit from these advances in teaching and learning. He is further directing the federal government to make better use of existing funds to get this technology into classrooms, and into the hands of teachers trained on its advantages. And he is calling on businesses, states, districts, schools and communities to support his vision.”

The tl;dr read version: President Obama wants every student in America online. And he wants it to happen sooner rather than later.

Smart. Students today are better served by carrying a tablet rather than a backpack full of books, especially if they’re going to learn the skills they’ll need to play in the global economy and avoid future back pain.

But hitting the president’s mark will take more than words, especially with cities and school districts strapped for dough. Broadband networks don’t build themselves, which means continued private investment — and a regulatory environment that encourages it, both on the state and federal level — will be key.  Connecting 99% of students isn’t a moon shot, by any means, but it is a heavy lift. This means everyone, from government to business, needs to roll up their sleeves and work together to get it done.

Appallicious & the Age of Open Data

By: Mike Montgomery 

To quote the great philosopher, Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

As fast as life moves, technology moves even faster. It only took Facebook eight years to land a billion users. Twitter hit the five hundred million mark in just six years. Apple’s App Store launched in 2008 and is already closing in on 50 billion downloads.

Government, in contrast, does not move quickly. Especially on the local level, and especiallywhen it comes to embracing technology. Want to take a trip down memory lane? Catch a glimpse of what the Internet was like five years ago? Ten years ago? All you have to do is fire up a municipal website. Chances are you’ll come face-to-face with a dusty web design with information buried behind confusing menus, documents with inscrutable titles, and slideshows that move at the speed of continental drift.

As more and more people carry an Internet connection in their pocket wherever they go, many local governments are struggling to effectively serve their citizens. People don’t need a Hall of Records. They need information at their fingertips. They need a government that is more open, more available; a government that speaks their technological language.

Enter Appallicious, the brainchild of San Francisco innovator, Yo Yoshida. The former Founding Director of the nonprofit Under the Baobab Tree, Yoshida is a Government 2.0 evangelist, and his goal with Appallicious is to transform the way governments and citizens engage. Here’s how Jeremy Wallenberg, Director of External Affairs for San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation, described Yoshida’s work:

 Yo and his team have spent years developing a revolutionary technology utilizing open data that makes it easier for San Francisco residents to effectively engage with City Hall and elected representatives. The Appallicious platform is an invaluable tool helping San Franciscans find and navigate through city parks, playgrounds and museums.

One way Appallicious is already helping the City of San Francisco better connect with its citizens is the freeRec & Park app, developed in 2012, which utilizes open data to provide information on the city’s many parks. Or as Mashable described it in more detail:

 The app… helps people find and navigate thousands of parks, playgrounds, dog runs, museums, recreation centers, picnic tables, gardens, public restrooms and other points of interest and facilities that are maintained by the city of San Francisco.

The Appallicious Rec & Park app is just one example of the good that can come from the utilization of government data. The platform is also being used by SFArts and the San Francisco Department of Public Health to create useful tools for the public using open data—stay tuned for these new apps which are due out later this year.

The software created by Appallicious is easy to scale and gives governments the ability to build apps in a number of days rather than months—as long as there is open data available.

So what is open data?  According to the Open Knowledge Foundation, “Open data is data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone—subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and sharealike.”  Trailblazing Government 2.0 advocate Alan Silberberg calls open data “Information that was previously only available via fax, paper or walking into an office that can now be found in a media form that can be used on websites or mobile phones.”

Phil Ginsburg, the visionary General Manager of San Francisco’s Recreation and ParkDepartment, says that, “Open data allows government to leverage the talents of app developers all for the benefit of those relying on our services and programs.”  Ginsburg reminds citizens that no personal information is shared with app developers.  The anonymous data is being utilized to serve residents in ways never before envisioned by government or private industry.  “It’s a win-win,” says Ginsburg.

In order to get the Rec & Park app off the ground, Appallicious worked with San Francisco city leaders like Ginsburg and San Francisco CIO Jay Nath to revise open data legislation, steps other cities will need to take in order to fully leverage the power of mobile apps and social networks to reach their citizens. According to Yoshida, every major city in America could have its own Rec & Park app within a year—all they have to do is embrace the age of open data.

Technology moves fast. Platforms like Appallicious can help governments keep up.

Center of Tech

Silicon Valley gets the majority of California’s tech ink, but according to an encouraging new report from the Progressive Policy Institute, the tech sector is benefiting the entire state as a whole.

According to PPI economist Michael Mandel, California has added jobs at a quicker pace than the rest of the country. Great news, to be sure, but when PPI breaks down the types of tech sector jobs and the areas of the state where employment is booming, things get interesting.

When drilled down to jobs centered around computers and mathematics, the Central Valley has seen the biggest increase in demand over the past year. For media and communications jobs, the Southern Border and Southern California are experiencing a boom. And in web development, it’s the Central Coast and Central Valley (again) that are leading the charge.

None of this means Silicon Valley is on the decline — far from it. But it does show that the tech sector continues to be a major force in the California economy from north to south and all the points in between, and it’s exciting to see another Washington, D.C. stakeholder take note.

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