Closing the Digital Divide with Blair Levin, Sr. Non-Resident Fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Project at the Brookings Institution

Blair Levin serves as a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Project at the Brookings Institution. He also is the Policy Advisor to New Street Research, an international equity research firm. Blair began his career practicing law in North Carolina. 

He then served as Chief of Staff to FCC Chairman Reed Hundt (1993–1997), was a policy analyst for the equity research teams at Legg Mason and Stifel Nicolaus, co-lead the Obama technology and government innovation transition team, and returned to government to direct the writing of the United States National Broadband Plan (2009–2010). 

Since then, he has split his time advising institutional investors and private companies, serving with various non-profits, and has been involved with a number of pro bono projects including working with three dozen university communities seeking to obtain next generation broadband networks, and working with the World Bank and UNHCR to create a Global Broadband Plan for Refugees. 

Barron’s Magazine noted that his work, “has always been on top of developing trends and policy shifts in media and telecommunications … and has proved visionary in getting out in front of many of today’s headline making events.” Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler also praised his work, noting “no one’s done more to advance broadband expansion and competition through the vision of the National Broadband Plan.” Levin is a graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School.

Take me to the podcast.

Wearing Many Hats

Excerpts from the Bigger Than Us podcast. These quotes have been edited for brevity and readability.

I was chief of staff at the FCC back in the mid-90s, when the internet was just getting started.

I do a couple of different things. They all are at the intersection of capital markets, public policy, broadband, using a lot of the same skill sets. For example, I’m at the Brookings Institution where I write and I help people thinking about broadband, how it fits into other policies. But I support myself by doing some other things, helping some smaller companies, but primarily working with New Street, which is an equity research shop, which means it provides research to institutional investors, not individual investors, about major trends and providing financial analysis for those investors in the telecommunications and technology space.

So for example, the infrastructure bill, which I’ve written some things on Brookings that you might read as advocacy. But in my wearing my New Street hat, I don’t advocate but rather I try to describe to investors, “Here’s what Congress is thinking, here’s what the White House is thinking, here’s what the FCC is thinking.” And if you put those things together, you come up with the policy, might be good for these stocks, might be bad for these stocks.

I would say, in my own work, an example would be Friday, there was an article in a magazine, a periodic, or an online daily called Axios, which talked about how certain people in the White House are thinking that broadband prices maybe need to be regulated. And I wrote a piece for Wall Street investors saying, “Well, they may think that, but it’s not going to happen. And here are the various reasons why it won’t happen.” So that’s the kind of stuff I do.

The Challenge of the Digital Divide

It was, I think, in 1996, or 1997, when we were still using dial-up, that the then-head of the National Telecommunications and Information Agency, sometimes known as NTIA — the head of it was a guy named Larry Irving. And Larry coined the phrase “digital divide,” to reflect the fact that there were a lot of dial-up options in some parts of the country, but not in others. And there was definitely a racial component to it. There’s also an income component to it. There was some educational component to it.

But there was not a political consensus at that time that we really needed to get networks everywhere, that we really needed to get everybody on. And that it should be a priority to improve how we utilize those networks. I think COVID has changed the political capital behind those ideas. And for anything to get done, you have to have a certain amount of political capital. But you know, these things are not easy to do. They certainly require more financial resources than the government of the last decade was willing to put into them.

Since then, the technical definition of the digital divide has changed. And whereas the technical definition has shifted a lot, the fundamental definition has not. For me, it’s: do individuals have the ability to fully participate in the economic, civic, and social lives of their communities?

What Covid Helped Us See

I think particularly in this COVID year, where we saw so much of what we do be transformed by the fact that we could now do it over broadband, I think there’s a greater appreciation for the fact that it is something which we need everyone to have.

Back in March of 2020, which I think is a month that all of us will remember, we were supposed to have a 10th anniversary of the National Broadband Plan at which we would all discuss how things have changed and call for another plan.

So we started thinking about how to rewrite it in light of COVID. We also wanted to make sure that we wrote it before the new administration began. So it wouldn’t be like the Obama administration, where the money was basically all spent before we got to develop our own plan. And then also George Floyd happened. There was suddenly a lot of consciousness about those things, which are a function of what you might think of as either historic or systemic racism. And so we joined forces with the National Urban League and produced something called the Lewis Latimer plan.

One of the interesting things that happened in the COVID year was that Congress passed laws giving large amounts of money to state and local governments. And a number of those governments use them to improve the conductivity of their citizens. You look at the state of Alabama, for example, they took a bunch of CARES Act money, and used it to try to connect as many of their school kids as they could, even though it is a red state of Republicans. You had a governor who understood that they had to deliver education to all their kids. And the only way to do it during the COVID year was through digital access.

So it’s really important that the federal government put more money into solving the problems of getting networks everywhere and getting everybody on, I think the states are very good at certain kinds of planning things. They are very good at building roads and having broadband on those roads. And there are a variety of things that states can do. But local governments play a really critical role in terms of helping people with things like digital literacy.

Broadband Infrastructure’s Vision

Broadband is the infrastructure of infrastructure. That is to say, what really is infrastructure? Infrastructure is a common good that all of us share to a certain extent. You don’t build a road for an individual. You don’t build a bridge for one person to drive over, you don’t build a broadband network for just one person to use it. It is a common asset.

People are going to have many different jobs, and they’re going to have to constantly retrain. And then most of that retraining is going to be online. We know that. So why don’t we get people started, and make sure that there’s plenty of opportunities for digital literacy and digital readiness?

The great thing about the digital platform is the platform itself learns. So if kids improve their reading comprehension using game A, but don’t do so much using game B, we know to use game A. But if certain kinds of people actually learn better with game C, they get game C, so the kind of the data, the constant improvement, these can be tremendous things for our society. We haven’t done them yet. Hopefully, we’ll do them in the years to come.

Let me throw out some headlines that I would love to see in the year 2030: “97%, of American Fourth Graders Reading at Sixth-Grade Level,” that would be a great headline. That is much more achievable than one might have thought putting a man on the moon was in 1960. Here’s another goal: “Preventative Medicine Cuts the Cost of Healthcare by 30%.” In the year 2030, the ability to do telehealth really should enable us to do preventative health, and much more.

if you are working at, say, cleaning a building, as we go back to work, and you’re working nine to five, and then you’re picking up kids and you’re feeding them dinner, and in the morning, you’re doing breakfast for them, you’re really working from seven in the morning till nine at night, right? You might be exhausted. But if you really need to see a doctor, the ability to see a doctor at 9:15, in the evening, by phone is an enormous benefit. And that’s the kind of thing that is now possible.

So I’d love to see a headline about how digital health essentially lowered costs, while simultaneously improving outcomes. I’d like to see a headline that somehow captures how people retrain and get jobs much faster. Because there are all kinds of applications that enable them to do it.

Choosing the Right Team and Finding Purpose

After college, I worked for a year, got a couple thousand bucks together, and did the backpack trail through Latin America for nine months. And while there I learned that the most fun places to be were wherever there was a celebration in which there was a bullfight. Jumping into the ring a few times. And there’s something about being in a ring with a bull. And these were not large bulls. But there’s something about it, where you kind of go, “Why am I here?” And when you’re growing up, you’re there because your parents told you to go to school, or your teacher said to do this or whatever. But when you’re out there in the ring, asking yourself, “Why am I here?”

But I think that part of what I got out of that experience was my own sense of agency. I chose to be here; it may be a good choice or a bad choice. We’re certainly at certain points of questionable choice. But I did it and in a lot of decisions that have proven to be best for me are decisions that I very, very much understood why I made those decisions and the ownership I have of that decision.

I guess on a more professional level, I would say, the thing that I’ve really been struck by is how Washington is a place where people like to use the “I” word a lot. I try not to. Everything that I’ve done, that has actually mattered, been important, was really done as part of a very significant team effort.

We maybe get it to the 20, and then the quarterback throws a pass to someone who catches the ball, scores a touchdown. Both the quarterback and the end actually feel like they ran the ball back. All 100 yards, they scored the touchdown. Washington is full of people who think they did a thing and in my experiences, you move the ball down the field.

But the real lesson out of that is to choose your teammates wisely. They’re the most important influence on how you feel in the course of the day. They’re the most important influence on what you can accomplish. And I’ve been really lucky, particularly my two times in government, to have great teammates. I’ve got great teammates at New Street now, really love the folks at Brookings as well. Choose the team because that’s where you’re going to be playing a lot with. And that’s what’s really going to matter in your life.

THE TRANSCRIPT: BIGGER THAN US EPISODE 152

This transcript has been lightly edited.

Host Raj Daniels  00:01

Let’s dig into your background a little bit. You know, start with if you were asked to share something interesting about yourself, what would it be?

Blair Levin  01:13

I’m not sure I’m that interesting. I’ll just make two observations. I grew up in California. I went back east for college and law school but ended up in North Carolina with my then-girlfriend, now wife of many years, when she was going to medical school. And when I came to Washington, there were a lot of people who assumed I was actually from North Carolina. By then I had managed to convince people that I was because it turns out in Washington, it’s a lot better to be from North Carolina than from California, and a lot better for people to think you went to UNC than some Ivy League school. So I was perfectly fine. But probably the thing that most people don’t know about me that in a bizarre way formed me was after college, I worked for a year, got a couple thousand bucks together, and did the backpack trail through Latin America for nine months. And while there I learned that the most fun places to be were wherever there was a celebration in which there was a bullfight. Jumping into the ring a few times. And there’s something about being in a ring with a bull. And these were not large bulls. But there’s something about it, where you kind of go, “Why am I here?” And when you’re growing up, you’re there because your parents told you to go to school, or your teacher said to do this or whatever. But when you’re out there in the ring, asking yourself, “Why am I here?” It’s a very valuable lesson for the rest of your life.

Host Raj Daniels  02:49

Well, valuable, and also quite existential too.

Blair Levin  02:52

Yeah.

Host Raj Daniels  02:52

Why am I here?

Blair Levin  02:54

Right.

Host Raj Daniels  02:55

Well, let’s start with why you’re here. You’re here because I was reading an article recently regarding the digital divide and Kamala Harris being tapped to lead that. And there’s a quote from you in this article, and I’m going to read it here. “Broadband is going to be a critical part of our infrastructure of the future.” Can you elaborate on that quote?

Blair Levin  03:19

Sure, if I could redo the quote, I would say broadband is the infrastructure of infrastructure. That is to say, what really is infrastructure? Infrastructure is a common good that all of us share to a certain extent. You don’t build a road for an individual. You don’t build a bridge for one person to drive over, you don’t build a broadband network for just one person to use it. It is a common asset. Let’s not get into the question of whether it should be publicly or privately owned and how it’s regulated. But it’s a common asset that we all use, that enables us to do lots of other stuff. It’s an empowering technology. It may not be the ultimate thing we do, but it’s the thing that enables us to do the thing we really want to be doing. And when we think about infrastructure today, like roads. The roads have to be smart. You want to have sensors in those. And those sensors want to be able to communicate data to someplace so that your traffic light works more effectively. When we talk about water pipes––I think the President has wisely said we need to make sure we don’t have lead in them––you also want to have sensors on those that make sure we know when they’re leaking and make sure about other things. So this collection of data, analyzing data, all of which is over the broadband network, broadband now needs to be a piece of every infrastructure. And so it is underlying everything that we do. I think particularly in this COVID year, where we saw so much of what we do be transformed by the fact that we could now do it over broadband, I think there’s a greater appreciation for the fact that it is something which we need everyone to have.

Host Raj Daniels  05:09

So the infrastructure of infrastructure. The idea of making roads and pipes, etc, smart through sensors, the public good, the public benefit, Congress, obviously, but this idea of making broadband regularly or easily available to all citizenry. You’ve been working on this since 2010, I believe, maybe even earlier. Can you share why you think we’re not there yet? What happened in you know, in the last 10-11 years?

Blair Levin  05:40

I was chief of staff at the FCC back in the mid-90s, when the internet was just getting started. And it was, I think, in 1996, or 1997, when we were still using dial-up, that the then-head of the National Telecommunications and Information Agency, sometimes known as NTIA––the head of it was a guy named Larry Irving. And Larry coined the phrase “digital divide,” to reflect the fact that there were a lot of dial-up options in some parts of the country, but not in others. And there was definitely a racial component to it. There’s also an income component to it. There was some educational component to it. Since then, the technical definition of the digital divide has changed. And we worked on some things during the Clinton administration to try to foresee what that digital divide might be and try to prevent it from happening. And in some ways, we said we were successful, most notably, I think, with something called the E-rate program, which has successfully put fiber in pretty much all the classrooms of America. If we hadn’t done that, we would have had wealthy schools have access to the internet and poorer schools not, but we didn’t succeed everywhere. And whereas the technical definition has shifted a lot, the fundamental definition has not. For me, it’s: do individuals have the ability to fully participate in the economic, civic, and social lives of their communities? Back in 1996, it wasn’t essential, but we could see where it was going to go. Now, as we saw in this last COVID year, it is essential. You cannot fully participate without broadband. Going to your question, so then I came back to government in 2009 and 2010, to do something called the National Broadband Plan, which fundamentally had three big ideas: let’s get networks everywhere, let’s get everybody on them. And let’s utilize the networks to better deliver essential services like health care, education, workforce development, public safety, etc. We have made progress in the last 10 years. We didn’t make enough progress. Why didn’t we make enough progress? Well, part of it was that after the initial two years of the Obama administration, we didn’t really have a congress that did much. Now, the only thing Congress did on telecommunications was to do a couple of things that we had recommended in the National Broadband Plan relating to Spectrum and relating to a public safety network called FirstNet. But there was not a political consensus at that time that we really needed to get networks everywhere, that we really needed to get everybody on. And that it should be a priority to improve how we utilize those networks. I think COVID has changed the political capital behind those ideas. And for anything to get done, you have to have a certain amount of political capital. But you know, these things are not easy to do. They certainly require more financial resources than the government of the last decade was willing to put into them. But you know, we also needed a real commitment at all levels of the federal government, and the state governments and local governments, that both understands and wants to act on how we fundamentally operate in a digital society.

Host Raj Daniels  09:08

Where do you think we are on that arc of political consensus? You mentioned federal, state, local. Where do you think we sit right now from a progress perspective?

Blair Levin  09:16

So I think that each realm of government has a different vision and different resources. I’m not saying opposing, I’m just saying different. One of the interesting things that happened in the COVID year was that Congress passed laws giving large amounts of money to state and local governments. And a number of those governments use them to improve the conductivity of their citizens. You look at the state of Alabama, for example, they took a bunch of CARES Act money, and use it to try to connect as many of their school kids as they could, even though it is a red state of Republicans. You had a governor who understood that they had to deliver education to all their kids. And the only way to do it during the COVID year was through digital access. And so you saw lots of experimentation, lots of people doing various things. And you’ve now seen this Congress and the American rescue plan, devote lots of money, $10 billion, to give to states to improve broadband access. That’s far more than what happened during the Obama years, which was about seven in the Recovery Act there. Plus, they passed $350 billion to go to state and local governments with broadband being an eligible use. So there’s more money there. And of course, the big test will be in the incoming infrastructure bill. The President has proposed $100 billion, the Republicans have proposed $65 billion for broadband. That’s actually one of the narrower gaps between Democrats and Republicans, in terms of the differences in what they want to spend on the infrastructure bill. So we’ll see, I would say a couple of things. Number one, the federal government is the only entity capable of essentially providing investments into our future. So it’s really important that the federal government put more money into solving the problems of getting networks everywhere and getting everybody on, I think the states are very good at certain kinds of planning things. They are very good at building roads and having broadband on those roads. And there are a variety of things that states can do. But local governments play a really critical role in terms of helping people with things like digital literacy. One of the ideas that I really like is to have digital navigators helping certain under adopting communities, whether it be senior citizens, whether it be people of different languages, whether it be people of low income, who don’t have access to a lot of digital tools, people from those communities, helping others in those communities learn how to deal with digital technologies, that’s really going to be done at the local level. So we need a kind of an organized approach in which each level of government does what they do best to make sure that we get everybody on.

Host Raj Daniels  09:16

Do you think the 100 billion dollars will get us there?

Blair Levin  12:23

I think it’s a critical start if it’s used correctly. I should note that back in March of 2020, which I think is a month that all of us will remember, we were supposed to have a 10th anniversary of the National Broadband Plan at which we would all discuss how things have changed and call for another plan. The single most important sentence in the National Broadband Plan was the beginning of the implementation chapter, which said, “This plan is in beta and always will be.” And that really is the right idea. It’s not a popular idea in government because political leaders want to say we solved this problem forever. The truth is you never solve a problem forever. And so we wanted the plan to spark a lot of other activities. I would regard that as something we did not do well because whereas certain things came out of the plan that worked well, the constant review, course corrections, improvements that we were hoping to inspire in the federal government didn’t really happen over those 10 years. Well, what happened instead was, of course, the conference got canceled. But suddenly, lots of other people throughout the country started saying, “Oh, my God, we need networks everywhere. We need everybody on, we need to improve how we deliver these essential services, using the network.” And that caused a bunch of us to say, “We should rewrite the National Broadband Plan ourselves.” So we started thinking about how to rewrite it in light of COVID. We also wanted to make sure that we wrote it before the new administration began. So it wouldn’t be like the Obama administration, where the money was basically all spent before we got to develop our own plan. And then also George Floyd happened. And there was suddenly a lot of consciousness about those things, which are a function of what you might think of as either historic or systemic racism. And so we joined forces with the National Urban League and produced something called the Lewis Latimer plan. Lewis Latimer, being an African-American son of slaves, back in the 1880 and 1890s, worked with Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison on some of the most important discoveries of his time, and things which are equivalent, in a way, to the Internet of the time in terms of transitioning how people really live their lives. In any event, we wrote a plan that is similar to the National Broadband Plan but certainly updated, has a lot of different kinds of recommendations. And it’s in that context that I would say the $100 billion can get us that to that first goal of getting networks everywhere. It cannot quite get us to the second goal, which is getting everybody on, because that requires a long-term commitment to having low-income support, just as we do with Medicaid, just as we do with SNAP, which is the Food Assistance Program. Just as we did there, some people are at an income level where it’s always going to be tough. And yet, we benefit if they’re online. And so we’re going to need some kind of low-income support, as we traditionally had with telephone service, but we need to upgrade it for broadband. I don’t think $100 billion does what’s really important in the federal government, and, by the way, state and local governments, to reorganize how they deliver services so that we actually improve those services online. We can talk more about that. And then a final thing is I think this was very important to the National Urban League. And it’s the right thing, which is, how do we make sure that the business opportunities that are created by new technology are distributed among everyone so that we have a more equitable and inclusive society? So the $100 billion does some things, but it doesn’t do everything. Some things require money. Some things don’t. Sometimes things require one term capital infusions. Some things require ongoing operating expenses. So the infrastructure bill is critically important, but it’s not the end of the story.

Host Raj Daniels  16:29

Let’s go to the question of how do we ensure business opportunities get distributed equally? What are some of the ideas around that?

Blair Levin  16:40

It’s a great question. And it’s something we didn’t address in the National Broadband Plan. And it’s something which I’m going to start by saying something which will sound obvious, but we honor it in its breach, which is, number one, we really need more information. And we need consistent updating of the information. That is to say, we need to know where the opportunities are, we need to have better data on what segments are growing. And we need this not just from a business opportunity perspective, but also from a workforce perspective. So the data gathering the information economy ought to be giving us much better information about how to do that and where the targets are. Then there are a variety of different things that can be done at the government level, whether through contracting, or through kind of specific grants, or through training program support; for example, for the historic black colleges and universities and things like that. Different kinds of finance mechanisms. And then there are the kinds of stuff that can be done in the public in the private sector, where I think relative to where we were 10, 20 years ago, particularly in response to George Floyd, there is a greater awareness of the need to bring everyone along. As the former Senator Paul Wellstone kind of famously said, “We all do better when we all do better.” But large corporations, in particular, have to make sure that we’re all doing better. And that’s a really tough thing to do. I think it’s,  more frankly, about private sector activity than about public policy. And my expertise is more in public policy. But I think it’s really important that we have a consciousness of it, that we collect information about it, that we have targeted government programs, and that we very much keep what you might think of as the pressure on private entities to understand their role and making sure that all have opportunities.

Host Raj Daniels  18:46

Now, this question might not go anywhere, but I’m going to ask it anyway. Earlier, you spoke about getting everyone on; assuming, everyone onto broadband. You also mentioned COVID in the last year, which really put a spotlight on the digital divide. We got notices from our local middle school here, something along the lines of if you don’t have internet access at home, take children to, and they named a few restaurants: you can take them to the parking lot, somehow expecting children sitting in cars to log on to Wi-Fi at restaurants and study. What role does the Department of Education have any play in this digital divide?

Blair Levin  19:22

So the fundamental problem that the school district in your area was responding to is the order of magnitude. There are about 30% of people who live in areas where broadband exists, but don’t have it in their homes. The numbers vary by community. In some communities, it’s 50%. In some communities, it’s 5%. But the problem isn’t fundamentally educational. It’s an in-home broadband problem. The Department of Education has limited resources to address that. The federal government program that was supposed to address that was a program called Lifeline. Lifeline was a program developed during the Reagan administration, right after the breakup of AT&T, in which the Federal Communications Commission collects certain fees on telecommunications providers, and distributes them to low-income persons, to make sure that everyone could connect to dial tone. That’s a program that obviously needs to be upgraded for the broadband era. We made some recommendations, some of which the FCC did, that improved the situation. But at the end of the day, there are way too many kids, such as the kids your school system was dealing with, that we need to do more. And there are certain proposals both in the plan that we developed and circulating in Congress to essentially give people what you might think of as a benefit. And so if you’re below a certain income level, you essentially get a voucher for the purchase of in-home broadband and a device and things like that. I just know, Department of Education does play a role in a number of other things. I think the big challenge is, how do we adjust education in a world where so many things are done digitally? There are tremendous opportunities to improve education, and it’s kind of painful. For people like me, who had such high hopes for the internet, in the mid-90s, to see that it hasn’t shrunk the education gap, that it’s actually widened it. But if you think about it, the opportunity to learn at your own pace, the opportunity for personalized education, the opportunity for someone who’s not going to a great school to nonetheless, get great teachers who are teaching in a different manner who are teaching online, the opportunity. One of the things we mentioned, in the Latimer plan, is, we’re about to experience what you might think of as a COVID slide. Every summer, there’s something called the summer slide, where kids leave third-grade reading at third-grade levels. And when they return in the fall, they’re reading at second grade plus levels, but they’ve kind of fallen off. Well, we have a COVID slide, it’s gonna happen, that’s happening, where kids who in March of 2020 were reading at a third-grade level and now are maybe reading at a first-grade level. That’s a horrible thing for our country. People project sociologists project that you can predict very accurately the number of prison beds, you’re going to need 11 years from now, by just looking at the fourth-grade reading scores. And if they’re really low, you’re going to need a lot more beds. Well, they’re going to be really low. But we don’t have to just say, “Oh, well, can’t do anything about that.” If we got everybody online, we could have personal tutoring, people in New York tutoring kids in Arizona, or whatever, right? I mean,  there are plenty of people who would like to contribute their time, to help second, third, fourth, fifth graders, learn how to read better. Learn how to do math better. We could have a national surge of people helping people. The internet enables that. But we don’t use it effectively for that purpose. And so the Department of Education can really start rethinking the fundamental ways we deliver education,

Host Raj Daniels  23:28

As you were speaking, and I’m going to start talking, while I’m thinking this through, and this might not be a popular opinion. But I almost feel like there should be some kind of mandatory online education. And the reason I’m saying that is that I’ve been in and around technology for the last 10-12 years, I’ve had my own startup. So I know, I know the world very well. I have young children myself. And I know that my children, their first inclination if they get on the iPad, or an iPhone is not education. It’s something else. It’s competing interest for their attention. And I feel like unless there’s an intentional movement to bring children up to speed, a mandatory movement, if you will, sometimes, to bring education to the children, in which they have to participate, whether it’s a summit, whether it’s the summer slide or COVID slide, they’re both inevitable.

Blair Levin  24:22

Yeah. In a year, in which somehow we in the United States, managed to turn the simplest thing, the wearing of masks that would protect everybody, into a political-cultural war, it’s difficult for me to see how we could mandate online education. Having said that, you’re absolutely right. They’re just some really big facts we all know. We know that in the years to come, your kids’ generation––I guess I should say my kids’ generation, but my two grandkids, they’re going to have many different jobs, and they’re going to have to constantly retrain. And then most of that retraining is going to be online. We know that. So why don’t we get people started, and making sure that that there’s plenty of opportunities for digital literacy and digital readiness? We know that when we look at the classroom of today, it’s not really going to make sense for a teacher to stand up in front of 30 kids and try to explain the world to them. We know that we’re going to move the teachers from being the state of the sage on the stage to more of a counselor, more of somebody who helps people. People kind of work at their own pace to get there. Saul Khan of Khan Academy, which is a fantastic organization, talks about, a really important thing that we haven’t incorporated in education. He says, when you build a house, you do, you kind of you dig it out, you build the foundation. You’re not allowed to build on top of that foundation until the foundation works now, not 80%, good, but 100% good, because otherwise, the foundation is weak. And then you put the frame, and then it gets inspected again, and you’re not allowed to go to the next phase until you get the framing right. And then you do the next part. And you have to get each part kind of 100%. Well, the internet enables people to have a reading education where you get it right before you go to the next stage and math education where you get it right before you get to the next stage. That’s the way things should operate. But that’s not the way they operate in education today. People move on before they truly understand things.

Host Raj Daniels  26:49

And I would just like to add to that. If the education system can figure out a way to just add gamification to the system, I think they’d move along much faster.

Blair Levin  26:59

Ah, that’s almost certainly true. And that’s what I mean about the Department of Education having a tremendous influence on how we make this transition. There’s no doubt that 20 years from now, of course, that’ll be happening all over the place. But it would be great to see America lead in that and it would be great to see the young generation in school today––they’ve had a very problematic year last year, being on the cutting edge of improving our understanding of things by creating that kind of gamification and other ways that that really attract attention. And here too, and I would say this would apply to almost every service. The great thing about the digital platform is the platform itself learns. So if kids improve their reading comprehension using game A, but don’t do so much using game B, we know to use game a. But if certain kinds of people actually learn better with game C, they get game C, so the kind of the data, the constant improvement, these can be tremendous things for our society. We haven’t done them yet. Hopefully, we’ll do them in the years to come.

Host Raj Daniels  28:11

Hopefully, so. So I’m going to switch gears here and get to the why behind you. Obviously, you care about this digital divide. You’ve been involved for a long, long time. What’s your why? What drives you? What keeps you motivated? What keeps your hopes up?

Blair Levin  28:26

You know, one of my personal heroes was a rabbi in England, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who unfortunately passed away, way too young, last year. But one of the things he said is that you discover your life’s purpose where what you want to do meets what needs to be done. And there are certain things I’m good at. People say, follow your dreams, I’m not sure that’s really good advice. I do think understanding what you’re good at, is a good starting place. But sometimes what you’re good at doesn’t create opportunities for you to do what you really want to do. And for me, the kind of analytical skills that I bring to bear, the kind of background in politics and policy and organizations and things, they come together at a few points in my life, not every day of my life. But a few points. And one of them has been on this fundamental mission of––because I worked on these issues back in the 90s. I worked on it throughout, I never, in a way, stopped working on it. But I’ve had two stints in government that really allowed me to try to drive the change that I thought would be valuable, and really help improve people’s lives. I mean, it’s not any more complicated than that. The internet, I think, has disappointed a lot of us in terms of how it’s created divisions and misinformation, and I wish I knew better how to solve that, but I don’t. The digital divide issue is one I think I understand better. So it’s one that I’ve been focused on. So it’s that combination of what your skillset is, what your personal networks are, but also what do you think is most important. At this particular time that you could do something. I would just note, climate change is far more important than anything I’m working on. But I’m not an engineer, the politics of it is very different. So at a certain point, you have to realize the embedded value that you’ve created for your life because of what you understand how to do. You want to use that to drive as important a change and important an improvement as you possibly can.

Host Raj Daniels  30:40

You know, you mentioned Jonathan Sacks. And I actually heard him on an interview, I think it was last year or the year before, and he kind of gave his story about how he got involved in his movement. So I really appreciate you bringing him up.

Blair Levin  30:51

Yeah, wonderful man.

Host Raj Daniels  30:52

Absolutely. So let’s move into the future. Magic wand. Let’s say the government can provide all the funds necessary. It’s 2030. Looking back, where do you see or how would you like to see a headline read about perhaps what was once the digital divide?

Blair Levin  31:12

That’s a great question. No one’s ever asked me. Let me throw out some headlines that I would love to see in the year 2030: “97%, of American Fourth Graders Reading at Sixth-Grade Level,” that would be a great headline. That is much more achievable than one might have thought putting a man on the moon was in 1960. Eight years later, we put a man on the moon, or nine years later. But you know, I don’t know that anyone has articulated the goal of having 90% of American kids in fourth grade reading at a sixth-grade level. But if you think about it, that’s an achievable goal. Here’s another goal: “Preventative Medicine Cuts the Cost of Health Care by 30%.” In the year 2030, the ability to do telehealth really should enable us to do preventative health, and much more. And everybody knows, or everybody who studies it knows that preventative health can actually improve health outcomes while also lowering the costs. It’s just that we don’t do it. And we don’t do it for lots of different reasons. One of those reasons is it’s so problematic, to make an appointment to see a doctor, to go visit with a doctor, to sit in the waiting room. And then to go back to work. For people in the information world like me, if I have to go see a doctor, I just go see a doctor, and it doesn’t affect my income at all. But if you are working at, say, cleaning a building, as we go back to work, and you’re working nine to five, and then you’re picking up kids and you’re feeding them dinner, and in the morning, you’re doing breakfast for them, you’re really working from seven in the morning till nine at night, right? You might be exhausted. But if you really need to see a doctor, the ability to see a doctor at 9:15, in the evening, by phone is an enormous benefit. And that’s the kind of thing that is now possible. Obviously, there are certain things you need to physically see the doctor for. But there are a lot of things you don’t. And telehealth has been a huge improvement. By the way, I think one of the things that came out of COVID was the use of telehealth increased, depending on what numbers you want to look at, no less than 50%. But you know, there are some extraordinary numbers in terms of how we started using it almost overnight. It was not a technology change. It was just a change in how we thought about doing it. So I’d love to see a headline about how digital health essentially lowered costs, while simultaneously improving outcomes. I’d like to see a headline that somehow captures how people retrain and get jobs much faster. Because there are all kinds of applications that enable them to do it. I’d love there to be a program where if someone just became unemployed, you put in some metrics about your background, you take some tests, and it says to you in your area, here are the jobs that we project would happen. Given your background, you could apply for these jobs. Now on the other hand, given your background and your skills, if you take these training programs, here are some even better jobs for which there are both openings today. And we project even more openings tomorrow. You know, for high-end folks there are applications like that. I’d like to see that universally available and universally used. So when you asked me what the headlines are, I’m going to assume that we’ve solved the problem of getting networks everywhere in the country, because that’s really insolvable. And by the way, a lot of political capital is behind it, because Democrats believe it as a matter of philosophy, that the federal government should act in that way. Republicans believe it because they represent a lot of rural areas. And they certainly understand that those rural areas need broadband to thrive. I’m going to assume, though, this is a more problematic assumption, that we’re going to find a way to make affordability a non-issue, that is to say, we’re going to help low-income people get on the internet. And so I’m really going to be what I’m hoping for 10 years from now, are massive improvements in how we utilize it to create a more equitable, inclusive, better-functioning society.

Host Raj Daniels  35:41

Well, I look forward to reading all the headlines you mentioned. You mentioned healthcare. And for me, and I know it’s not directly, but in my mind, healthcare is also an infrastructure problem. I mean, if you’ve got great infrastructure, but no people to use it, what’s the use? And I often joke about health care. We take our cars in for oil changes every 3000 miles, so three, four times a year. And we take our bodies in once a year when we can.

Blair Levin  36:08

No, it’s a really good point. Look, there are a lot of companies working on this. Apple’s working on it, Google’s working on it, and Amazon’s working on it. Lots of different folks are working on it. But at the end of the day, the federal government’s got to play a key role in making sure everybody has access to the kinds of improvements. But healthcare is not something that should be done once a year to go see your doctor. It’s something which, you know, we should all be taking care of ourselves every day.

Host Raj Daniels  36:38

And I think you hit the nail on the head earlier when you said, especially preventative. If we can nip the problems in the bud before the healthcare system gets overburdened with them, why not?

Blair Levin  36:50

Yeah, absolutely.

Andrew Behar  36:52

So just briefly, can you go over New Street Research, what the organization does, and your role at the organization?

Blair Levin  37:00

Yeah. I do a couple of different things. They all are at the intersection of capital markets, public policy, broadband, using a lot of the same skill sets. For example, I’m at the Brookings Institution where I write and I help people thinking about broadband, how it fits into other policies. But I support myself by doing some other things, helping some smaller companies, but primarily working with New Street, which is an equity research shop, which means it provides research to institutional investors, not individual investors, about major trends and providing financial analysis for those investors in the telecommunications and technology space. It’s a relatively small firm compared to some of the giants on Wall Street. But it’s very focused on those two sectors. And we have people all around the world watching those trends. And I follow the public policy trends in Washington, DC. So for example, the infrastructure bill, which I’ve written some things on Brookings that you might read as advocacy. But in my wearing my New Street hat, I don’t advocate but rather I try to describe to investors, “Here’s what Congress is thinking, here’s what the White House is thinking, here’s what the FCC is thinking.” And if you put those things together, you come up with the policy, might be good for these stocks, might be bad for these stocks. So that’s what I do.

Host Raj Daniels  38:31

So I’m not looking for financial advice for myself or listeners, but the tagline on the website is “built to deliver uncommon insight.” So without advocating, like you said, What is some uncommon insight that you’ve come across recently?

Blair Levin  38:49

I thought the thing that’s most interesting and newsworthy about newsfeed research, was that my colleague and good friend, Jonathan Chaplin, who’s the principal analyst in the United States, for the last number of months, has been talking about AT&T and saying they are walking off the wireless playing field because they’re not making the necessary investments in wireless. They have a strategy that’s all about vertical integration with media. It will not work. And as a result, they’re not only going to fail in media, but they’re going to fail in the business where they could do much better, which is wireless and also by investing in fiber. And indeed, a couple of months ago, there was an editorial in the Wall Street Journal by a guy named Holman Jenkins, which talked about Jonathan’s work. And when I talked to Jonathan that day, he said, I’m not sure anyone at AT&T will ever talk to me again. Well, the funny thing is, we started this week with AT&T, essentially adopting Jonathan’s advice and selling their media assets. So I would say the big uncommon thing, the Jonathan understood––and he wasn’t alone, but he was pretty more and he was more insightful and louder about it than a lot of people in Wall Street––is AT&T is a big company. Is that the theory of the AT&T, Time Warner entertainment deal was a flawed theory. From a business perspective, it was bound to fail. And I think that’s right. I would say, in my own work, an example would be Friday, there was an article in a magazine, a periodic, or an online daily called Axios, which talked about how certain people in the White House are thinking that broadband prices maybe need to be regulated. And I wrote a piece for Wall Street investors saying, “Well, they may think that, but it’s not going to happen. And here are the various reasons why it won’t happen.” So that’s the kind of stuff I do.

Host Raj Daniels  41:03

I appreciate you sharing that, and staying on the topic of advice leads me to my last question. If you could share some advice, or words of wisdom with the audience, and it could be professional or personal, what would it be?

Blair Levin  41:16

I, we have three kids, we have two grandkids, I love them all dearly. It’s a lot of fun to watch your kids become parents, they become much nicer to you, they become more grateful to you, more appreciative of what you did, and also appreciate the difficulty of parenting. And one of the things I’ve noticed, and in some ways, I care more about this than the digital divide, I suppose, is, there are certain things that you want your kids to be. And you just realize that the way we’re made makes it difficult. You want your kids to be resilient. And yet as a parent, you don’t want them to ever suffer harm. And so you, you don’t give them the opportunities to rise up after harm, you try to prevent harm all over. And that’s a problematic thing. You know, I think the happiest kids are kids who have a great sense of gratitude. And that’s great. But the instinct of parents is to try to give kids things and that gives them a sense of entitlement. And so that’s a problem. You really want to help your kids. But one thing you should want to help them to do is to have a sense of agency, that they’re in charge. And we started by talking about my time in the bullring, and I had wonderful parents, by the way. But I think that part of what I got out of that experience was my own sense of agency, I chose to be here, it may be a good choice or a bad choice. We’re certainly at certain points of questionable choice. But I did it and in a lot of decisions that have proven to be best for me are decisions that I very, very much understood why I made those decisions and the ownership I have of that decision. And I think it’s really important to give kids that sense of agency. So the contradictions of being a parent or something, which I think about a lot. I guess on a more professional level, I would say, the thing that I’ve really been struck by is how Washington is a place where people like to use the “I” word a lot. I try not to. Everything that I’ve done, that has actually mattered, been important, was really done as part of a very significant team effort. I think of my own experience in Washington. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see that this is really true for lots of people in non-political situations. The other team kicks the ball to your team, someone runs it from the goal line to about the 20. Then a different team comes on and there are certain people like me who are kind of a lineman. And we try to march the ball down the field. We maybe get it to the 20, and then the quarterback throws a pass to someone who catches the ball, scores a touchdown. Both the quarterback and the end actually feel like they ran the ball back. All 100 yards, they scored the touchdown. Washington is full of people who think they did a thing and in my experiences, you move the ball down the field. But the real lesson out of that is to choose your teammates wisely. They’re the most important influence on how you feel in the course of the day. They’re the most important influence on what you can accomplish. And I’ve been really lucky, particularly my two times in government, to have great teammates. I’ve got great teammates at New Street now, really love the folks at Brookings as well. Choose the team because that’s where you’re going to be playing a lot with. And that’s what’s really going to matter in your life.

Host Raj Daniels  44:42

You know, as the father of three young children, I really appreciate the parenting advice. I recently heard something that really struck home for me and it said something along the lines of, prepare the kid for the road, not the road for the kid, and that really hit home with me.

Blair Levin  44:58

That’s a great liner. It’s a really valuable lesson. There’s a wonderful book about raising kids called The Carpenter and the Gardener, with the metaphor being that carpenters are very precise. And they are they’re trying to build something that’s precise. Whereas the gardener is trying to create an environment in which the thing can grow itself. Parenting is a lot more like gardening.

Host Raj Daniels  45:21

I’ll be sure to look it up. And I think a great place to leave is to “choose your teammates wisely.” Blair, thank you so much for your time today, and I look forward to catching up with you again soon.

Blair Levin  45:31

Thank you so much, Raj. It’s been a great pleasure talking with you.

Before we go, I’m excited to share that we’ve launched the Bigger Than Us comic strip, The Adventures of Mira and Nexi.

If you like our show, please give us a rating and review on iTunes. And you can show your support by sharing our show with a friend or reach out to us on social media where you can find us at our Nexus PMG handle.

If there’s a subject or topic you’d like to hear about, send Raj Daniels an email at BTU@NexusPMG.com or contact me via our website, NexusPMG.com. While you’re there, you can sign up for our monthly newsletter where we share what we’re reading and thinking about in the cleantech green tech sectors

Raj Daniels

You may also like: