FierceTelecom Leaders: Blair Levin

If there is anyone who has insight into the future machinations of telecom policy in the Obama Administration, it is Blair Levin. One of the "favorite sons" of the VoIP community, Levin was part of the Obama transition team's technology policy group and worked side-by-side with FCC Chairman nominee Julius Genachowski.  During the Clinton administration, Levin served as chief of staff to former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt.

Now back at his private sector job as an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus, Levin talked with Fierce associate editor Phil Goldstein about the transition team process, Genchowski's relationship with Obama, potential challenges at the FCC, and broadband policy.   

FierceTelecom: Would you say the work of a transition team is more fixing up and tinkering with the policies of the previous administration, or formulating new policies?

Levin: I think there are three different pieces of a transition, the most important of which is personnel. That is to say, the fundamental job of the transition team is to get the president very high-quality people for as many jobs as possible as quickly as possible. Second, there's a process called agency review in which you want to send a lot of people to all the different agencies and try to find out what are the problems you don't know of. The third is policy, and policy is probably the least important because policy is going to be done by the people who actually do the jobs when you're running the government, not by the people in the transition team.

The Obama transition team was different historically in a number of ways, but one of them was the way it negotiated with Congress legislation that to a significant extent was negotiated before the administration even started, and may turn out to be the most important piece of legislation passed. That is an unfortunate accident of history, but you don't really have a choice. You deal with the situation you have, not the one you want to have. So, I would never recommend, like if I were to design a world, I would say, "Don't have an economic crisis in the last year of an administration, and don't have the transition team have to deal with it." But nonetheless, we had to deal with it.

So in answering your question, part of what you're talking about was done by the agency review team, part of it was done by what we were doing. But it really wasn't about tinkering with policies. It was about addressing an economic situation which was many years in the making. I was not one of the principal players in that economic stimulus package. I was involved in various sub-parts of it, like the broadband piece.

FierceTelecom: Julius Genachowski was just formally nominated by President Obama to be the next chairman of the FCC. What do you think will be the biggest challenge for Julius and for the commission in terms of setting a new agenda? What will Julius bring as chairman?

Levin: First of all, I've known Julius about 15 years. I hired him at the FCC. He's a close personal friend of mine. I'm totally biased. I think he's great. He was my co-leader, I was his co-lead in terms of the transition team. I think he has a number of different challenges. Obviously, in sequence, the first challenge is the digital television transition. But probably the challenge we will remember him most for is whether and how and all that...he faces the fundamental challenge of broadband.

America used to be the leader in what we would think of as access to the Internet. You can argue about lots of different metrics, but it's pretty difficult to see how America is the leader. We may not be as behind as much as some people think. We may be more behind than some people think. But we don't have the same leadership role. Bringing back American leadership to broadband in a variety of different ways is an enormous challenge, one certainly recognized by Congress as they've asked him to-they didn't realize they were asking him when they passed it-but they asked him to put together a broadband plan.

This interview is continued...