Strickling Sees IANA Transition; BTOP Grants as Top Accomplishments

January 9, 2017–Completion of the transition of oversight of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to the multistakeholder community last year will probably be remembered as the biggest accomplishment from the last eight years at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, according to NTIA Administrator Lawrence E. Strickling.

During an interview with TRDaily, Mr. Strickling spoke about both the accomplishments of NTIA during his tenure, and some areas where he would have liked to have seen more achieved, such as privacy bill of rights legislation, the lack of receiver standards, and continued need for broadband deployment and adoption.Mr. Strickling said that “the Internet is stronger as a result of” completing the IANA transition which “has been 20 years in the making,” and that “U.S. interests are better protected because of it. … I think that’s the thing 10 years from now if anybody looks back at the last eight years at NTIA” will be viewed as its most important accomplishment.

Asked how far the completion of the IANA transition has gone toward blunting support for an International Telecommunication Union role in regulating the Internet, Mr. Strickling said, “I think that by the time we completed the transition we had already done a tremendous amount of work to get the support, especially for the developing world … If something had happened to derail that transition at the last minute, you would have seen a real backlash among the developing world, fueled largely by the authoritarian nations [saying], ‘Look, you can’t trust the U.S.  The U.S. is going back on its word.’” He added, “I wouldn’t expect that to change going forward, because I think they now see opportunity for their technical experts, their businesses to participate in Internet governance.”

Asked whether and how NTIA should continue to oppose efforts by some countries for government or multilateral regulation of Internet governance, Mr. Strickling said, “The issue can continue to be raised by countries like Russia at ITU meetings in the future. … But I just don’t see, [given] where we’re at today, them getting much traction on this issue unless something were to dramatically change in some fashion.” Nevertheless, he said that the U.S. and other countries in Europe and other supporters [such as] South American countries need to remain vigilant” and “continue to build on the momentum that was created with the outcome of the IANA [transition] process.”

Asked whether the U.S. aims at meetings of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee should focus on defending against any efforts to increase governmental influence over ICANN, Mr. Strickling said, “The GAC is providing advice to ICANN board.  While certainly governments may come to those meetings” with a mind-set that governments should have a greater role, “in the context of ICANN they’re there to provide advice to the board.”

“That precise issue of government control of the Internet rarely arises in the context of GAC meetings,” he added, and U.S. representatives to the GAC “should represent U.S. interests both in terms of larger interests of Internet freedom and in terms of interest of U.S. businesses.”

The second major accomplishment of NTIA under his leadership, which has spanned most of the Obama administration (TRDaily, June 26, 2009), has been the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) grants authorized by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, he said.  “We went back and kind of took a look at everything for a speech I gave last month, and I was really pleased to see that projects accounting for over 98% of the infrastructure grants we gave out are still in operation,” Mr. Strickling said.  “We ended up with over 117,000 miles of infrastructure being built, and we connected 25,000 or so community anchor institutions.”

Asked how important additional government funding is to the goal of broadband deployment, Mr. Strickling said, “If we’re going to get service into these areas that continue to be unserved or grossly underserved today, it’s going to take government assistance.  The economics just aren’t there and they aren’t going to change.  You’re dealing with too much geography and too few customers to justify the cost of the build-out in areas like that.  Perhaps new technologies such as wireless broadband can help bring that cost down, but I think at the end of the day there’s going to have to be some kind of support mechanisms, both in terms of providing capital dollars … and/or a system of providing operating subsidies once something does get built.  Because you’re not going to all of a sudden repeal or change the law of economics as it relates to the viability of a lot of these areas of the country.”

He noted that since the BTOP funding has been expended, except for a few projects that continue to be monitored, “particularly on the public safety side,” NTIA has “pivoted” to supporting community broadband efforts with technical assistance and advice on best practices garnered from the BTOP projects.  He added, “We have to continue to focus on broadband adoption — there’s still a gap between those who have broadband infrastructure in their communities and those that actually subscribe to it.  That’s I think a fairly low-cost problem to deal with but it’s a complicated one, because we find that to have a meaningful adoption program you really have to focus on local conditions, which means designing programs to meet the needs of people who live in a particular community, to get them to understand the benefits of being online, how they can utilize it, how they can advance their own lives by taking advantage of high-speed broadband.  That isn’t a one-size-fits-all massive online course to get people to become digitally literate. If you’re going to do this, we find that having that local focus is really important.  But we know how to do it, and we know that it’s not that expensive.  It’s just more of an organizational effort of how do you mount enough of these campaigns to make a difference and move the needle on these things.  But that obviously has to be part of what’s done in the future as well.”

Another NTIA success during his tenure, Mr. Strickling said, was an acknowledgment by stakeholders of the importance of spectrum sharing rather than focusing on reallocating federal spectrum for commercial use. “The recognition that we had to move to emphasizing spectrum sharing as the way to meet the increasing needs of both federal agencies and the commercial sector was an important advance,” he said. “And while I think people maybe don’t see it or don’t appreciate it, all of the processes and infrastructure that have been built behind that ensure that we have a pipeline of spectrum to look at, that we have a mechanism and a procedure by which industry and government agencies can work together to figure out the issues in that space.”

“They’re laying an important foundation for keeping this work going in the next administration,” he added. “And the work will always be there. I mean, it’s not going away.”

Mr. Strickling noted that spectrum memos signed by President Obama in 2010 and 2013 (TRDaily, June 28, 2010, and June 14, 2013) helped propel the administration’s goal of freeing up an additional 500 megahertz of spectrum for commercial services by 2020 and its priority of focusing on sharing.  “I think we’re now at a point where people understand there’s going to be a constant need to be evaluating spectrum bands, a constant need to be figuring out to how to meet the increasing needs both of the commercial sector as well as the government agencies,” he said. “It’s less a, ‘Alright, do it once and then stop for three years.’ I think it’s now being embedded into the day-to-day work of NTIA, it’s being embedded into the day-to-day work of the IRAC [Interdepartment Radio Advisory Committee]. And I think that’s a positive thing and will … help everybody going forward.”

He also cited the Commerce Department’s 2012 white paper on privacy as “an important step forward” on the Internet policy front, although “getting legislation to incorporate the consumer privacy bill of rights would have been a nice thing to have, and I think it would have helped us maintain the momentum on the multistakeholder discussions on privacy issue.  Once it became clear to people that there was no longer much prospect on legislation, I think people’s interest in working through the voluntary codes of conduct waned a little bit,” he said. “But I think the policy statement is an important one and hopefully it will set the terms for a discussion that will continue on after Jan. 20,” Mr. Strickling added.

He was asked if he has any concerns about setbacks on the spectrum front during the Trump administration. “I’m not going to speculate on what might happen in the next administration, but on the question of sharing vs. clearing bands, I think people who look at the spectrum map today or look at … our frequency allocation chart understand that there just aren’t any places left to be clearing out the federal use,” he replied. “And I think people more and more understand that federal needs are increasing at the same time.” He added that he would like to see more industry research and development on spectrum utilization, and he also said government agencies should also continue to pursue their own research. He also said he is encouraged that technological advances have made higher-band spectrum now suitable for commercial wireless services, adding, “I think as long as that technology continues to develop, there will be hope for all of us here.”

Mr. Strickling also was asked about how difficult it would be politically to adopt receiver standards, which he has advocated for to protect against interference to authorized spectrum operations. The lack of such standards has created spectrum-management difficulties in several high-profile proceedings, including one involving Ligado Networks LLC. “Obviously, the fact that it hasn’t happened would suggest that it’s going to be quite difficult,” he said.But as bands are used more intensively and a myriad of operations are placed near each other, “I don’t see an alternative to this,” he added. “I think you have to go there at some point, because it helps with this larger issue of making sure we’ve got spectrum available for everybody who needs it.”

Another success that Mr. Strickling cited during his tenure was progress at the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), which is an independent entity within NTIA but has its own board and staff charged with overseeing the deployment and maintenance of a nationwide public safety broadband network. “Obviously, at this stage it’s way too soon to be making judgments as to how successful all this will be,” Mr. Strickling said. “But, you know, the idea of creating a startup entity in the context of the federal government with all the federal rules we have to follow — I think it’s pretty amazing that those folks have gotten to the point they’re at, where they’re, you know, nearly ready to award a contract to their strategic partner.”

Since FirstNet was created by the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, some industry and public safety stakeholders have complained that NTIA’s oversight has been responsible, at least in part, for the slow progress seen at FirstNet, at least initially, in personnel and procurement matters.

“The criticisms that somehow there were too many regulations being imposed on FirstNet at the start … doesn’t … reflect or acknowledge that the legislation that created FirstNet still bounded [it] to all manner of federal procurement and hiring regulations,” Mr. Strickling said. “So, yeah, if you come from an environment where you’re used to deciding today to hire somebody and they’re on the payroll next Monday, that doesn’t work in the federal system.”

“I think there was clearly a learning curve for industry people and the public safety community, where they needed to understand exactly how this would operate,” he added. “Maybe it wasn’t clear to people on Day 1 how this was going to have to go, but these were the natural and unavoidable consequences of the law that Congress passed.”

He also addressed criticism of NTIA’s decision to terminate the grants of several of the seven public safety BTOP grant recipients. Seven projects were awarded $380 million in BTOP grants to deploy public safety broadband systems. Mr. Strickling noted that the public safety BTOP grants were awarded in 2010 when a network-of-networks framework was being considered – years before Congress established FirstNet to oversee a nationwide network. “Quite honestly, if we had known in 2010 that that’s where Congress was going to go two years later, we wouldn’t have done the grants we did in 2010,” he said. “And one of the first things I did after that act passed was we suspended all of those grants until we had a sense of how they could possibly fit into … the new model, the new paradigm Congress had created. And so we decided … that where FirstNet saw value in at least learning about the technology and getting some experience with some of these as demonstration networks, that we allowed, you know, a number of them to proceed. And some of them, though, were terminated at that point in time because we couldn’t justify continuing the expense without any clear benefit to FirstNet.”

Asked whether he views the multistakeholder process NTIA initiated to develop voluntary codes of conduct and similar nonregulatory responses to various Internet policy issues as a success, despite some early push-back by participants for NTIA to direct the process, rather than merely convene it, Mr. Strickling said,“That was certainly true of the first one, because we were bringing a process into practice that not only did we need more experience with but the participants needed more experience with as well.  I think the first privacy group that worked on notification for mobile apps quickly overcame that issues, and by the end of the process that group was working extremely well.  I thought it was a very high-functioning group by the end of process.

“These things take time.  They do require a group of people who want to reach consensus.  That’s not always the case with all the issues that have to be dealt with in the policy arena.  But I think when you’re dealing with cutting-edge technology, when you’re dealing with policy issues that there isn’t a lot of knowledge or experience with, these are a very valuable way to make progress early on in the process,” he said.  “If people were trying to legislate in the area of drone privacy now, that would take years,” he added.

In the meantime, NTIA “created that beach-head” on how to deal with privacy and drones.  “We’re better off having those early-stage work products,” he said. “I hope that [the multistakeholder process] continues on at NTIA here in the next administration.  Certainly our team is prepared and ready to do that,” he said.

Asked whether a walk-out by consumer groups from the multistakeholder process on the use of facial recognition technology harmed the process as an institution (TRDaily, June 15, 2016), Mr. Strickling said, “I don’t think it weakened the concept of the process. I have said repeatedly that I would have much preferred that they stay in it. It would have been a stronger process if they had stuck with it.” “If you look at the alternative, what was accomplished by the walkout?  It didn’t lead to legislation in this space. It didn’t lead to regulation in this space,” he added.

Asked whether he has any advice for the next NTIA administrator, Mr. Strickling said, “I’m not in the business of giving advice to people, but I would just say that we have a tremendous team of people here at NTIA and that they are here and ready and willing to continue the great work that they’ve done for the past eight years.” Meanwhile, Mr. Strickling said he has no plans yet on what he will do after he leaves NTIA. – Lynn Stanton, lynn.stanton@wolterskluwer.com, and Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com

Courtesy TRDaily