Reaching Across the Aisle on Tech Policy

Despite the ongoing saga of what has become the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, elected officials and policymakers still managed to gather at Google’s Washington, D.C., office yesterday for the Opportunities for Bipartisan Tech Policy conference. The half-day conference, hosted by Next Century Cities, the American Action Forum, and Public Knowledge, aimed to identify areas of bipartisan consensus in the issues of rural broadband, data privacy, and spectrum policy and to discuss potential priorities for the new Congress.

Read about some key takeaways from the conference below. For the full experience, watch the video archive of the event.

Keynote Highlights

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel’s opening conversation with Deb Socia of Next Century Cities touched on many of the topics that would be discussed throughout the day, including rural and tribal broadband access, data privacy and consumer protections, and efficient allocation of spectrum. Commissioner Rosenworcel also pointed out the importance of working with states and localities to improve the accuracy of federal broadband availability data in order to better direct resources to underserved communities. (Learn more about how the FCC data overstates broadband access.)

In the second keynote discussion, moderated by Will Rinehart from the American Action Forum, Robert McDowell, former FCC Commissioner and Partner at Cooley LLP, and Blair Levin, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, spoke about the future of 5G and how to measure the success of broadband subsidy programs. When asked what his priorities would be if he were an FCC Commissioner, Levin replied:

“What I would do is free up the cities . . . I do think that city officials — they know more, they have the right incentives, and we’ve got to free them up. And the FCC is doing exactly the opposite"

Panelists Find Some Common Ground

Community Broadband Networks’ very own Christopher Mitchell moderated the first panel of the day, which grappled with the issue of broadband access in rural areas. For the most part, panelists agreed that the problem of rural broadband isn’t inadequate demand for connectivity. Instead, they pointed to the high costs of deploying broadband networks in rural areas. Jon Chambers from Conexon also nodded to the “soft bigotry of low expectations” as a factor dooming rural America to poor Internet access.

Panelists agreed as well on the need to reform how the FCC funds rural broadband, though ideas on how to do so varied. Some noted that the federal government tackled a similar issue when it ensured rural communities got access to telephone service. As Harold Feld of Public Knowledge put it, “We’ve solved this problem before.”

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The following panel, moderated by David McCabe from Axios, addressed data privacy and security. Speakers noted that the policy conversation has expanded from a strict focus on individual privacy to also include broader questions around data use and the impact on society. With big data, there’s “enormous potential for systemic discrimination,” explained Ryan Clough of Public Knowledge. Laura Moy from Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology later added, “I think that some of the problems that we’re starting to notice . . . are really societal harms."

However, when asked about areas of potential bipartisan consensus, Neil Chilson from the Charles Koch Institute identified the traditional privacy concerns around safety and personal financial data as easier issues to compromise on. Francella Ochillo from the National Hispanic Media Coalition also saw some future for bipartisan agreement, saying, “It doesn’t really matter what community you come from. We all want our data to be protected.”

In the final panel, Austin Bonner from Harris, Wiltshire, & Grannis LLP moderated a discussion with “the nerdiest spectrum nerds” on spectrum allocation and 5G. Panelists explored ways to open up more spectrum for use by rural WISPs, among others, and to enable more innovation. On 5G, Michael Calabrese from the Open Technology Institute reminded the audience that “5G isn’t just, or perhaps primarily, a mobile technology” and that high-capacity, wired networks will be essential for deployment.

Overall Themes

Throughout the conference, speakers brought up the role of states and localities in addressing these issues, through efforts to bridge digital divide, regulate 5G installations, or guarantee data privacy, as examples.

Also, in an industry as quick moving as tech, many conference attendees agreed that it’s difficult to predict exactly what the future of 5G technology is or how concerns around data privacy will evolve. This element of the unknown has huge implications as policy makers consider how to regulate — or not regulate — emerging tech issues.

Watch the full event: