A Day In The GovLife is a series that profiles people in interesting or unusual government jobs and gets the scoop on what it’s like to be in that role and how you can get there.
Day In The GovLife
Interviewee: Tony Wilhelm
Job: Deputy Associate Administrator for Infrastructure in the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), Department of Commerce
NTIA is the Executive Branch agency that is principally responsible for advising the President on telecommunications and information policy issues. NTIA’s programs and policymaking focus largely on expanding broadband Internet access and adoption in America, expanding the use of spectrum by all users, and ensuring that the Internet remains an engine for continued innovation and economic growth.
What was the career path that brought you to where you are?
I did my dissertation on the impact of emerging technologies on the democratic process, and that really led me to look more deeply at how the emerging internet at the time was creating all sorts of opportunities economically and socially. And that led me into a private foundation providing grants to organizations that were experimenting with technology, and then to the government, which was providing a lot of seed money for organizations in the mid-90s. So it really came out of my doctoral interests.
What attracted you to public service?
I was actually recruited into government by people I really admired. I think it’s important to have people in government that you admire and really want to work with. The folks that were there in the Clinton administration were people I admired and really wanted to work with, and so that’s what brought me into government.
What does the National Telecommunications and Information Administration do?
Basically, we’re the president’s chief advisor on telecommunications policy. We work on spectrum management and run the D-TV coupon program and the broadband stimulus grant. So we have a pretty broad portfolio, but basically we’re the leading agency on telecommunications issues.
Why was it so important to switch from analog to digital broadcasting?
The digital-to-analog transition was critical because we wanted to free up the spectrum for public safety and new commercial opportunities, so we needed to move the broadcasters off the analog spectrum. The great thing was we were providing a great service to the public in offering digital television because of the picture quality and more channel options, but it obviously created a lot of challenges we had to work through. We had to provide converter boxes for folks that didn’t have digital television, and a lot of those folks ended up being vulnerable populations, like people with disabilities, seniors. We needed to work with groups that represented those groups, like the AARP and others, so we didn’t leave folks behind without their television reception.
What were the 2-3 biggest challenges associated with that project?
There were two big challenges. One, we had a congressionally mandated deadline, which is always very challenging because you have to do things really quickly. We wanted to do it right while we did it very fast, so we had to make sure we could pull everybody into the transition with the time that Congress gave us. The second challenge were the partnerships. We had to work really closely with industry – the broadcasters, the cable operators, and the consumer electronics folks were really leading the charge on this with huge investments in advertising to help the public understand what the transition meant and what options they had to make the transition.
You head the Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program program. Can you tell us what that is and what challenges you’ve faced implementing it?
The Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program is a $4 billion grant program that came out of the stimulus law. The challenges there are twofold. One, we have another statutory deadline. We had to get all the money awarded by September of last year, which was a huge challenge. We wanted to make sure we did it fast, but more importantly, that we did it right. It really showed that you can accomplish a lot quickly but also do it effectively and at a high level of quality, so that was really exciting. The other big challenge was coordinating our efforts across the government because other departments got money for broadband and related investments, and we wanted to make sure we leveraged those across the Administration. I think that was another challenge we overcame successfully to make sure we used the funds as wisely as we possibly can on behalf of the public.
What does a typical day look like for you?
We made 230 grants with the $four billion we had under the stimulus program, so a typical day is managing the issues that come up with respect to those projects, to make sure they’re successful. They rely on us to provide technical assistance and advice to make sure they can achieve their goals on time and on budget. With 230 projects, that’s a pretty full day in terms of keeping them on track.
What advice would you give an up and coming government employee?
Don’t be afraid of staying in government, of being a part of government. There are huge opportunities downstream in terms of the challenges that confront our society, and there’s going to be really exciting opportunities for young people to help solve those challenges in government and work with the private sector to solve those problems. I would say, despite what maybe you’re hearing in terms of what’s going on in government, that it’s still a real opportunity for smart people to be engaged and have an exciting opportunity to solve the problems of our day. I think it’s a great time to be in government.
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There’s another side to the story. I recommend ’Defining Vision’ by Joel Brinkley to see how power politics factored into the near demise of broadcast TV by allocating the frequencies for “public safety” at a time when plenty of spectrum was available. The consumer electronics industry saved the day, but at significant cost.
Great interview, Stephanie…wonder which of those projects have become “flagship” models…