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An Interview With Richard Whitt, Google’s Washington Telecom and Media Counsel

I recently had the opportunity to interview, Richard Whitt, Google’s Washington Telecom and Media Counsel, who will be one of the keynote speakers at the upcoming Emerging Communications Conference (eComm 2009) being held on March 3-5 at the San Francisco Airport Marriott.

The following is the transcript of the phone interview. The original audio recording of the interview can be downloaded here [mp3].

Lee Dryburgh: You are Google’s Washington Telecom and Media Counsel. Would you care to describe that role?

Richard Whitt
Washington Telecom and Media Counsel, Google Inc.
Richard (Rick) Whitt: Sure, I joined the company two years ago, this coming week. Prior to that, I had spent a year consulting to the DC office. At that point, it was Alan Davidson. He was the DC office in toto. The issue of that time, and of course an issue that remains very viable today, was network neutrality.

Google realized that under the pre-existing laws and regulations they were on pretty firm footing, in terms of the ability of their end users to access multiple network platforms and to be able to reach Google. Whether people wanted to make searches, whether they wanted to utilize Gmail, look at Google Earth, or a variety of other applications that we have on the Net, there were few barriers to people being able to use those software applications.

I think what dawned on many of the folks in the company—particularly with the Net neutrality wars that broke out in 2005 and 2006, thanks in part to Ed Whitacre ‘s conversations with Business Week in the fall of 2005—they realized that that premise was not entirely accurate, and in fact, there were clear signs that the carriers, particularly the larger broadband companies, had real interest in trying to capture some of the value they saw on the Internet, for their own uses.

There was a certain defensiveness, frankly, to the need to have somebody come on board to watch those issues for the company. At the same time, there was also very much a sense that there were some real opportunities, with Congress and the FCC, to further some open platform models, primarily on the wireless side.

Whether it was a 700 MHz auction, or now with the white space proceeding, folks at Google, and particularly Larry Page, who has a fond interest in this area, realized that Google, with the right people in place, and driving the issues in the right way, could really open up the communications networks in ways that had not happened before. Essentially, we could bring the ethos of the wireline Internet into the wireless space.

I see myself here, in DC, as playing kind of a defensive role, in terms of maintaining open platforms where they exist today, and more offensively, trying to be constructive in terms of creating new platforms and particularly ensuring that those new platforms also remain open to innovation and consumer choice.

Lee: It certainly sounds, to me, as if the Emerging Communications Conferences are ideal for the likes of yourself. I guess I’ll also ask the fairly standard question in my interviews with attendees and keynote speakers, which is why are you speaking at the Emerging Communications Conference, this coming March?

Rick: The conference, from all I know about it, is going to be a fascinating forum, and I think, the intersection of a lot of these different trends happening in the communications sector. One thing I can see clearly, and we’ve talked about it for many years now, under the notion of convergence, but I think increasingly, you’re seeing that communications is no longer network-centric.

We obviously have networks that carry our communications back and forth, but more and more the real innovation, creativity, ingenuity, and investment dollars are now showing up, not necessarily in the core of the network, but rather, at the edge of the network. It’s also happening in a very “bottoms up” way. There are a lot of smaller communities, and in particular, smaller companies working together, new players in terms of software and hardware, network builders and network operators, new technologies coming into the forefront. All of that is happening, and despite the unfortunate economic downturn we’re experiencing, I really do think it’s going to be the smaller players, with the new ideas, who are going to help drive the tech industry, in fact, out of the recession and out of our economic instabilities.

I certainly want to come to this conference to learn as much as I can about all of these exciting new things happening. Frankly, I also want to provide a little bit of my own thinking about how this affects the policy world, what the implications are there, that policy makers should be thinking about, particularly with the new administration, new leadership in Congress, and of course, new leadership at the FCC. It’s my sincere hope that this is a time for people to step back, take stock, and realize that there are new ways of coming at policy and regulatory issues that can help foster that kind of innovation and economic benefits.

Lee: I agree with you, that it’s the innovators who will help be the main ones who will win out of this slump. I’m already seeing the companies I regard as innovators in communications, they’re actually enjoying this downturn. I kid you not; many of the companies I’m dealing with, many are actually sponsors at eComm, are actually accelerating business growth, so much so, that I believe tomorrow we’re actually having a podcast conference call on the topic. Each of these companies I’ve been talking to are saying they’re profiting from the downturn because they’re driving innovation, driving efficiency, lowering friction where they can, through for example communications enabling business processes.

You had mentioned the change at the FCC. I would like to ask you; the change of Chairman from Kevin to Julius, how do you think that will affect the communications landscape, going forwards?

Rick: I will preface my remarks by cautioning that at this point we don’t yet have confirmation that Julius has in fact been nominated, nor do we have him confirmed by the Senate. But, that said, it certainly is a ground swell within DC. I think word leaked out from the transition team, a week or two ago, to the Hill. By all accounts, Julius will be nominated to be the next Chairman of the FCC.

I think it’s going to be great for the industry and particularly for those folks who will be participating in the Emerging Communications Conference. I say that because of a number of things, but primarily, Julius, unlike any of the recent folks who have headed up the Commission, or even come to the Commission, in terms of a leadership role on the 8th Floor, which is where the commissioners reside, Julius has a strong and deep background in business and technology. While he did spend several years at the FCC, in very primary roles, working with the Chairman’s office in the mid 1990’s, he has since gone on to work at IAC. He also founded a number of companies who are investing in small startup technology operations.

It seems to me that kind of experience, and particularly at this juncture in the history of the communications space, really can be crucial in terms of helping him understand how policies, regulations, laws, standards, and norms all fit together in driving the right kind of economic change. In some cases, how regulation holds back such change. I think he will bring a real nuanced attitude to the chairmanship, one steeped in this very hands-on understanding of technology and markets.

I think, also, from all I know of Julius, he is a very collegial person, very open, very transparent. I think there have been a number of folks around town, it’s no great secret, who believe that Kevin Martin, for all the merits of the number of policy things he pursued, often did them in a relatively closed fashion. He did them in a way that did not always invite his colleagues or folks within the commission to provide their own alternative viewpoints and have healthy debates. I think Julius is the type of person who would welcome those kinds of debates, which I think can only help, in terms of the final end product.

Finally, I think Julius will come to this, try to figure out what is the right regulatory framework for telecom policy. Again, I think sometimes in recent years, the agency has kind of jumped from issue to issue and it has not been entirely clear what the driving philosophical viewpoints are behind some of the actions the commission has taken. I think Julius is going to, as best he can, come at it with an open mind and obviously, coming at it as somebody who will look at the record closely and make decisions based on the evidence in the record. I think he will also try to develop a framework around which people can rally about how the FCC can be a driver of innovation, rather than sometimes holding back such innovation.

Lee: It may be a little too soon, I’m not sure, but I’m actually planning on reaching out to Julius, to see if he will speak at the start of March, at the Emerging Communications Conference; let’s see. I would like to ask you if you see any credible means, and this ties into the change of chairman, in my opinion; if you see credible means, at least on your radar, looking forwards, for challenging the existing broadband access duopoly?

Rick: That’s a great question. Obviously, we’ve been at this, now, for over a decade, in terms of the telephone and cable companies competing in the broadband space. There have been fairly regular bulletins out of the FCC, and elsewhere, indicating that technologies like broadband over power line or satellite-based broadband or the next wireless offering was going to provide that necessary third, fourth, or even fifth competing platform to the incumbents. Yet, we just simply have not, to this point, seen it.

There is some really interesting work that some have done. Rob Atkinson, over at ITIF, is one example, which suggests that in fact, the economics of broadband networks, and communications networks more generally, are unique. The broadband is not a box of widgets. Broadband is something that requires enormous upfront fixed costs, enormous upfront investments in deploying networks, something like 2/3 is simply in the actual digging of the ditches to lay the fiber, the coax or the copper, or whatever it might be. It may well be impractical for us to expect that you’re going to have more than a few competing providers. Rob talks about the engineer’s view of the world. An engineer’s view of the world, unlike the economist’s view of the world is that only a few networks are really going to make sense from an engineering perspective.

I think we can certainly push as hard as we can to try to make sure policy will help enable such competition, but it’s not a given. Even if the competition does come, we have to make sure that it’s coming from independent platforms. Some, for example, point to AT&T providing Wi-Max service, or Verizon rolling out its LTE network in a few years, as evidence of additional competition. Certainly, those are additional platforms, but as long as they continue to operate according to the financial signals of the parent companies, those are not truly independent platforms.

So if you’re look for an entity or entities out there, they really have to be those that don’t have ties to the incumbents, and in fact, have new business models, new ways of looking at providing communications. As you know, Google is an investor in the new Clearwire company. We think they do have a real shot at becoming a viable third competitor in the broadband space, over the next several years. They’ve deployed the network in Baltimore and are rolling it out, throughout 2009. Obviously, much remains to be seen, but I think of all the candidates people have talked about over the years, I think Clearwire has the single best chance, at least on a national level, of providing that needed competition.

Lee: Talking about access and Clearwire, more generally, how do you feel the 700 MHz auction went?

Rick: From the Google perspective, we were pleased at the outcome. I think one has to note, initially, the continuing issues around the D-Block, which was the spectrum that was set aside for public/private partnership, so that first responders could have a nationwide, interoperable network to provide much needed communications, emergency communications, that would go through federal, state, and localities, and be a single platform.

I think that vision remains a strong vision. It’s not clear if it’s a viable vision, at this point. The failure of the D-Block auction and subsequent discussions around that are leading people to try to figure out if there are other ways we can get that much needed funding to help create those national interoperable networks for the first responder community.

In looking at it from the perspective of the US Treasury, of course, they raised something like $19 billion. It was an all time record for an auction. From the Google perspective, as I mentioned, the C-Block, to us, was a successful story. We came into it with the hopes of triggering the openness conditions, by making the bid that would enable that to happen, which we did.

Verizon outbid us, which was their purview, so they now will be the holder of the licenses for that spectrum, at least most of that spectrum. They must abide by the conditions that we think are important to create competition at the handset and applications levels. Again, as I mentioned before, try to bring more of the openness ethos of the Internet space into the wireless world. It remains to be seen whether and how Verizon will, in fact, meet its obligations under those conditions of the licenses. We look forward to seeing them beginning to deploy networks and begin to deploy them in ways that best suit the needs of the consumers and innovative applications and hardware manufacturers.

Lee: That’s quite interesting. Staying on the access topic, I would like to ask what hope you have for white spaces?

Rick: The FCC adopted the order on November 4, on a 5-0 vote, that opens up the white spaces of the broadcast spectrum to unlicensed uses, both fixed and personal/portable, as the term the commission uses. We think the commission’s action is enormously important. They have laid the groundwork for a whole new way of looking at communications, taking some of the best lessons from the WiFi experience, and now putting it to work in much better spectrum, and much more of that spectrum. We think it could really signal a sea change in the way the communications networks are deployed and utilized in this country. All kudos to the FCC, to the fine work by Chairman Martin and the other commissioners, in showing leadership here, and also to Julie Knapp, head of the Office of Engineering and Technology, for his fine work, as well.

There are still some unanswered questions, and actually, rather important unanswered questions that we need to be aware of. One is the commission has required that those who utilize the white spaces have to have a geo-location database, in which information about the location of DTV signals and some wireless microphone signals would be contained. The devices would utilize that database on a constant basis.

We have not yet seen the details around the commission’s thinking here. The public notice on that is expected out, very shortly. We look forward to working with the commission to make sure the database can be deployed in a timely fashion, and also in a way that will minimize costs to the ultimate end users.

The second issue I would point out is on the standards side. What kind of standards should be used here, and I think because it’s unlicensed, you can expect there will be a variety of possibilities people will be looking at. There is not going to be any single standard, I would imagine, that people will be pointing to. But, we do need to make sure that there is some sort of underlying standard to the extent, for example, people who want to be able to create some sort of regional or national broadband network, that there is a set of protocols or standards they can look to, whether it’s 802.16, 802.22, or anything else out of the IEEE, or perhaps something outside of that context, all together. That will be an important development to make sure the spectrum can be used promptly.

The third issue I want to point out is one of the things we think the order, unfortunately, did not do, was to adopt appropriate power levels, particularly to the adjacent channels, those channels that are next to the DTV signals. The commission adopted a single fixed standard of 40 mW, which we think is quite low, unnecessarily low. Because it is a fixed number, it doesn’t take into account the wide variation in signal strength that might be encountered, depending on where you are within the contours of a DTV television station.

We proposed, instead, a more flexible standard, a variable power control standard linked to the database itself, which could allow for much more granular number, which in some cases would, in fact, be lower to provide more protection, but in many cases would be higher because the protection is not necessary.

The commission left that issue open and we are working with staff at the agency now, to try to develop the record to allow a more flexible variable power control type of standard to be adopted. By doing so, you open up that much more white spaces, particularly in the more urban areas. That makes a much more viable platform for somebody trying to create a nationwide footprint.

Those are just three of the issues outstanding that I think we are going to be dealing with in the coming year, to ensure that hopefully 2010 is the timeframe where we start seeing some real progress, in terms of applications, handsets, and networks.

Lee: I was not aware of the power issue. I might note that we have a speaker, Peter from Cisco. He is on the day before you. He is currently scheduled at 9:30. He is going to be speaking about the databases to which you just referred.

I’d like to ask you an open-ended question. They are always fantastic. I realize you only had twenty minutes to kindly spare for us. So I will finish off on this one. I would like to ask, generally, what opportunities you see arising, going forwards?

Rick: That is a great open-ended question. As you said, I’ll touch on a couple of quick points. Looking at this with my policy glasses on, because that is my main role here at Google, to look at the policy space and figure out what the opportunities are, not just for Google, but in a larger sense for the Internet community and emerging communications community.

One is I think; if you look at the broadband stimulus package being debated today. There are some very real opportunities, depending upon the business model of the entity and how the language kind of works itself out, that you are going to see some real money put on the table, both in terms of tax credits, and actual loans and grants, to try to incent the deployment of the next generation of broadband technology, both wire line and wireless. Again, the details are still being fleshed out. I don’t think we will see the final product for several more weeks. Certainly, by the time of the conference in early March, we are going to have a much clearer understanding of what Congress has done.

I think it would behoove everybody to take a real good look at the language there because we are talking billions and billions of dollars, both in subsidies and tax incentives, which could help drive the next generation of broadband, whether it’s more fiber, 4G networks, or other things, particularly in the more rural areas. I think there are some real opportunities there for people to look at.

Second, one of the things I’m going to be highlighting in my policy thought, going forward here in DC, is how to unlock more spectrum from the United States government. We think we’ve gone about as far as we can go with the spectrum that has previously been allocated for commercial use. But there still is, by all accounts, potentially hundreds of megahertz of spectrum that is either unused or dramatically underused and underutilized by various agencies of the federal government.

There have been some initial attempts, very useful attempts, under the auspices of NTIA and through some public/private groups, who have similar thinking here, to try to figure out how to incentivize the government to unlock the use of that spectrum, whether they sell it out right or allow for long-term leases, or overlays or underlays, real-time dynamic auction-type technologies like Google has been exploring. There are a variety of mechanisms to do it, but the bottom line is; it’s there and it’s waiting for people to find viable uses. That’s an area that I’m going to be increasingly focused on here, in DC.

Third, I would just point out the notion of a national broadband policy, which has not gotten credence, I think increasingly, for the first time here in DC, both in the congressional side and the FCC. I think people should pay very close attention to that because there are opportunities for the government, outside of the stimulus context, which is a more short-term monetary fix.

Longer term, trying to figure out how the US government can play a beneficial role in creating the right kinds of market incentives, and drive the right kind of innovations on the communications side, I think that’s another area for people to be paying attention and being prepared to respond; provide their own ideas, their own thinking and take advantage of anything constructive that the government comes up with.

Lee: That’s very interesting because I must admit I never considered the stimulus package having a knock on effect to the emergent communications industry.

Rick, I really appreciate the time you’ve given me. I really look forward to hearing you at eComm, at the start of March. Thank you very much, once again, for your time.

Rick: Thank you, Lee. I appreciate the time. I look forward to meeting folks out in San Francisco, in early March.

Lee: Thank you very much.

Additional interviews and updates for the upcoming eComm 2009 can be found on the official conference blog. For full conference details and registration information, visit the eComm 2009 website.

By Lee S Dryburgh, Founder of eComm Media, Inc

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