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Ken Robinson on Telecom Policy

Ubiquity, Volume 2005 Issue February | BY Ubiquity staff 


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Ken Robinson is a communications attorney in Washington, having worked at the Departments of Justice and Commerce, the FCC, and the Office of Telecommunications Policy during the Nixon Administration. He is editor of the weekly publication 'Telecommunications Policy Review.'

UBIQUITY: Congratulations on your 1000th issue of "Telecommunications Policy Review," begun 20 years ago. Let's start this interview by asking you to describe TPR for us and tell us a little about its history: why it was founded and how it has changed.

ROBINSON: You know, the publication actually looks pretty much the way it did 20-odd years ago — Courier type, single-spaced — "The full catastrophe" in the words of Zorba. We're like Deets in "Lonesome Dove." We don't give up on something just because it's old.

My "weekly reader" runs between 15 and 18 pages a week, and it has the same content, even — at least category-wise — that it's had for years. First, there's either a mass media or a telephone article, then something on good things that're happening — I had a judge once, who really liked that part. Then, there are some random pieces of information, assembled in a "Short Items" section — that's popular, too. Then, in four or five pages you get told everything that's happened over the past week everywhere. And, I stick in a movie review, too, plus something historical at the end. It's a recipe, a formulaic approach — but it also makes it easier. After years of doing the same thing, you get reasonably comfortable, sometimes proficient at it.

Why did the whole exercise start? You know, I ask myself that, too. Probably because of irritation with the fact that a lot of things were happening in 1982 in communications which weren't being dealt with "correctly." That was right after the Bell System breakup was announced. I wasn't a big fan of the way that was accomplished — that's a long story. But if you want the details, read Steve Coll's "Deal of the Century." He talks about the approach I thought preferable (and which Paul MacAvoy and myself also wrote about in two Yale Journal of Regulation articles back then).

UBIQUITY: In TPR "telecommunications policy" is broadly defined. Explain its coverage, emphasis, and approach.

ROBINSON: You know, the technologies here may be converging but the communities aren't. You still have a broadcast Bar and industry, then the phone companies, then the computer people, and wireless. It's a bit like how someone once described the Government — a loose confederation of periodically warring tribes. What's interesting is how little the one camp seems to know about what the other's doing. The people in the Government who have to deal with everything, the ones fairly high on the food chain, are more catholic in their understanding. But it drives me crazy that things happen in the postal world, for instance, which are just like what's happening in telephony, and I think mine is the only publication that tries to note that.

I also include articles on gardening, investing, historical developments — you name it. Fifteen years ago, one of my original readers remarked that I'd covered just about everything except the proverbial kitchen sink. I solved that with a plumbing article.

It's not so idiosyncratic as it seems, by the way. The first rule in any sort of writing endeavor is getting people to pick the publication up. That having been done, it helps to get them reading something. Telecommunications policymaking — face it — is genuinely dreary, boring stuff, most of the time. I try to leaven it a bit with other stuff, and also to lure in some of the unconverted. Plus, it's interesting for me. Who wants to write 70,000 bytes (or bits — I forget) a week on just dreary topics, right?

UBIQUITY: It's obviously been quite a success. What is its niche? And what have you found that people like most about it and least about it?

ROBINSON: You know, I actually have some readers who've been reading since the inception — benign tolerance of the eccentric, maybe. No, I don't know. I think what people like the most is I actually try to make the publication interesting. And, I also try to be interesting at several levels. For example, I've probably got the biggest secretarial or, more politically correct, "personal assistant" readership of any communications publication. They like the movies, they like the gardening features — and, then, every once in awhile someone tells me, "Oh, so that's what it's about."

What irritates people the most? Probably the politics. Remember that old saying that you need to be leery of conservative young men and liberal old men? Well, the older I get, the more reactionary I probably become. Or, the less tolerant of politicians, at least. A lot of my Blue-state readers also aren't that enthused about the weekly report on government transgressions and shenanigans — I labeled it the "Whitewatergate" report starting in the early 1990s, and the true believers complained. I dropped that term this year, incidentally, though when it comes to the Clintons, I'm not giving up. (Only kidding.)

UBIQUITY: TPR is available "by invitation only." What does that effectively mean, and why do you do it that way? How do people usually hear about it?

ROBINSON: The "by invitation" dates back to the days when I paid for everything. I did that when I worked for the Government — I also never included my name. Some of my bosses weren't that enthused about the paper version of today's blogs. But you're still allowed to say what you think. One of these days, I ought to figure out what I want to do. I'm still sort-of choosey about subscribers, and certainly don't want to get into solicitation. It's unseemly, isn't it? And, one thing that does surprise me is the resilience of the readership — I must be doing something right to hold on to their interest every week for all these years.

UBIQUITY: Is it true that you once got a phone call from President Reagan? How did that come about? More generally, how much influence do you think you may have had over policy issues? Is there any way of knowing?

ROBINSON: I'm lucky. One of my friends and longtime readers was a genuine friend of the President and Mrs. Reagan, and they must have sent them things I'd written. I'd written something saying that it was understandable why Presidents didn't have lots of press conferences since they turned into gotcha or prior-inconsistent- statement sessions, and not much more. President Reagan agreed, and spent about 10 minutes on the phone agreeing — it was in the afternoon, incidentally, about the time his critics always said he was napping. He was very lucid, quick, clever, don't worry.

I also got a nice, extensively hand-annotated thank-you note from Mrs. Reagan — it's been framed with the article involved. It was back when the newspapers were complaining that she was too involved in government, a sort of Dragon Lady figure, and I wrote something saying, "Hey! If you're married to someone for 30 years, you're allowed to tell him what you think." It wasn't my idea, incidentally, but rather my late, very Democratic mother's.

Who knows what impact you have? It could be like that Jeremy Bentham line, about people being able to compare their truth with my error.

Who even knows what decisionmakers in a lot of these agencies actually read? I was convinced at the FCC that there were lots of people who read only Communications Daily and the agency's daily newspaper clips — which weren't all that all-encompassing, remember, since they only clipped things which mentioned the FCC. At that agency — and, at a lot of other places — you've got a lot of "leaf people." That is, it isn't forests or trees, it's the actual leaves they're focusing on. But I've got a pretty high- level readership, smart people. A fair number, incidentally, don't have anything to do with the FCC or communications.

UBIQUITY: We'd like you to give us your thoughts on various general topics. It's seems meet and fitting to start with telephones. What's your unified theory of all the various kinds of telephonic communication?

ROBINSON: Who knows? People say the two things Americans like to do is drive and talk on the phone, and boy doesn't that seem true. You're obviously seeing lots of technological and commercial changes in the field. But you still have — what? Forty percent of the public which seems to be aggressively anti-technology? They want nothing whatsoever to do with computers. Telephones are probably the most accessible technology ever. The network's enormously sophisticated, but all that is designed to be transparent to everyone. Now that the wireless applications are ubiquitous, the number of people talking on the phone's just about universal, isn't it?

UBIQUITY: Now let's turn to computers. Where do you see the computer industry going in the next 50 years — or will there still be a "computer" industry in 50 years?

ROBINSON: The computer business is going to be around a long time, and, it's actually getting easier. They haven't yet reached the point where you take the machine out of the box and everything works right then. But they're closer. It seems to me, too, that the sector is going to become a lot more diverse. Look at it this way: Over the past three or so years, the biggest computer industry developments have been iPod, voice-over-Internet protocol (VOIP), and video streaming — and, Microsoft hasn't been much of a factor, has it? The same thing's true of online commerce — Amazon and eBay, notably.

Microsoft has a sort of Germanic approach to marketing — "We know what you should want, and what you should not want, so we're not going to give it to you." But I think that's going to change. I also don't expect the computer folks to drive anyone or anything out of business, at least not real fast. That doesn't happen in the "Information Economy" in general, does it?

Of course, I say all this as an old person — when you really should be asking someone, say, 14 or so. They have a lot better grasp and understanding of computers and what they can and should do than I do.

UBIQUITY: One of the things you include in TPR is movie reviews — ordinary popular movies that people will find it local theaters. No art films. Real movies for real people. When and why did you start to review movies?

ROBINSON: The movies have been around since the mid-1980s. I started writing about them because some of my readers like movies — and, I do too. But movies are also one of the most powerful communications and cultural influences, aren't they? Look at 2004, with Fahrenheit 9-11 and Passion of the Christ. You know, when I went to them I was probably as fascinated by the audience and its reaction as I was to what I was seeing.

I'm surprised you didn't ask me about the scoring system — you get rated between 87 and, oh, about 94. It's like grading at Yale, isn't it? I'm pretty tolerant, and try to find something to like about any of these films. Putting a movie together isn't easy, you know, and the directors and cast don't necessarily need to be assailed, disparaged, do they? By the way, I think the lowest score I ever gave was 73 to Young Doctors in Love and the highest was probably 96 to Gandhi, though I think I gave "My Left Foot" high marks, too.

Incidentally, years ago I wrote on art theater-type movies. I even went to a Bollywood production — whew! But I dropped it. I didn't like it. And, readers didn't like it either.

UBIQUITY: Have you spent much time thinking about the increasing influence of video gaming? Will its impact be such that movies 50 years ago will seem as primitive as the earliest silent films?

ROBINSON: You know, you're right on the mark about that. I saw a "Nova" program a while back where they explained the computer graphics which now seem to comprise about half of the bigger movies. The same fantastic computer graphics you see on a PlayStation 2 you now see in the movies, and my guess is that'll increase — among other things, it simplifies the residuals, doesn't it?

UBIQUITY: Let's jump track and move to some "people" issues. Let's start with "access" to technology and to the Internet? Is all well in those regards?

ROBINSON: I'm not sure. It seems to me that every part of society has access to TV, to video games and electronics, and certainly to things like wireless and all the features you're getting there. There's probably still a "digital divide." But I'm not sure where exactly it is. You know, I ran into some very poor Liberian immigrant teenagers in Baltimore who'd rebuilt, etc., old 386 and 486 computers and were even running the equivalent of a long- distance phone service between Baltimore and Monrovia. Who would have ever thought that? I expect minorities in this country are a lot more capable, more "fully featured" when it comes to these technologies than white males like me might think.

Where you still have a gap is where the elderly are concerned. All those I know who are into computers did that to communicate with their grandchildren in college. But you do have a group that aren't connected — and, it's going to be a problem with more and more of the "e-Government" going forward. How one deals with the aggressive non-adapters, however, is a good question.

UBIQUITY: What's your feeling about public television? Glorious success or disappointing mediocrity? (Or is there possibly something in-between?)

ROBINSON: I actually feel pretty good about public television, and wish there were some way to tap into their talents more. The distinctive talent or capability of public TV is the ability to package information in a readily digestible fashion. You have "Nova" programs on quantum mechanics that are understandable — I was a Chemisty undergraduate, and I can't remember how many laws of thermodynamics, etc., we have. That's important stuff. We've spent a lot installing hardware and computer systems in all the schools. Capitalizing on that is going to depend on the quality of the "software" — not just the educational software, but the programs, too.

Dr. Arthur Sheekey's suggested that we ought to be trying to get the educational and public television communities together to improve the situation. That could happen, you know, with top political leadership. If the President called the educators and public broadcasters together and told them to work something out, that'd happen.

UBIQUITY: And C-SPAN. Are you a C-SPAN junkie?

ROBINSON: You know, I like C-SPAN 2 — the various talk programs — but I also like C-SPAN Radio (though I sometimes think I'm one of five people in the country listening). On Sunday's, too, C-SPAN radio airs the audio portion of all the talk shows, which is good. I do keep the TV in my office tuned to C-SPAN and CNBC, however — tuned, but muted. I never used to do that until September 11. You know, you could see the plume of black smoke from the Pentagon from my office. So now I always have the TV on.

UBIQUITY: Having just touched on topics ranging video gaming to C-SPAN, it seems natural to ask about the promise of technology for transforming education — a promise largely unrealized so far. In such an innovative and prosperous country, why is it so hard to produce a real breakthrough in the educational system?

ROBINSON: It is a shame, isn't it? The past four years we've had "educational reform" that's turned the elementary and secondary schools into almost Japan-style juku schools, with teaching and learning to the test, period. Now, they want to expand to high school. What I find amazing is that all these educational "reforms" are being designed by politicians — most of whom are lawyers, like me. Let me assure you: There are no courses on education in law school. It's just crazy, isn't it? We seem to assume that education is a skill-less profession, that everyone's ideas are just as good as anyone else's.

I would like to see some more concerted effort to harness new technologies to improve education, and smarten all these kids up. Somebody's going to have to pay my Social Security, aren't they? But I don't really know how one goes about correcting the current situation. The American educational system is so dispersed, so fragmented, nobody ever seems to be really in charge — not even the textbook publishers.

What you need, as I think I said, is Presidential leadership in this regard. Tests are fine. But, again, if the President got top educators and top public broadcasters — or other technologists — in the room, he'd get results. Maybe he could invite Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to sit in, too.

Alternatively, why don't we ask Congress to ask for specific recommendations? Hastert's a former teacher, remember — isn't this just about the first time in history we've had a high school teacher as Speaker of the House? I think so. It ought to be possible to come up with some better, more effective program.

UBIQUITY:You've been called by one president, maybe you'll be called again. If you were to get a call from President Bush and he had time to listen, what would you tell him he should do about telecommunications policy — broadly defined, of course!

ROBINSON: I'd probably suggest that he bring in people like Fred Kahn or Paul MacAvoy — PhD economists from the Ford and Carter eras — and tell them to get busy deregulating. You know, I actually asked this Mankiw fellow — the outgoing Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers — when the Bush Administration planned to deregulate anything. He was talking at the American Enterprise Institute. This was before he said outsourcing Ohio jobs to Bangalore made sense. He assured me it'd happen. It hasn't.

Bush #41 had no domestic policy — which is why he wasn't reelected, isn't it? The Clinton Administration was sort of pro-regulation. The Bush folks have not only ignored the steadily increasing regulation at the FCC, the Justice Department, the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, and the Office of Management & Budget haven't done much, either. That's a mistake.

The regulatory reforms which Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan pushed produced enormous public policy dividends. If you got rid of rules, you could really stimulate investment, new services, and so forth. It's like a giant off-budget economic and jobs stimulus program. And, I'd sure like to see it happen. We can't all work for the Chinese, can we?

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