David Farber: Tech's Deep Thinker
Position: Professor of Telecommunications, University of Pennsylvania/Wharton School of Business. Currently on sabbatical at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science and its Heinz School of Public Policy
Contribution: Free -- and frequent -- high-tech advice to telecom's top dogs in Washington and to participants on his 25,000-member e-mail list, which he calls "Interesting People"
Challenge: "Getting the nerds to talk to the wonks"
David Farber thrives on thorny issues. That's why, on his year-long sabbatical at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, he plans to think through solutions to the New Economy's biggest challenges: the telecom meltdown, the balance between technology and copyright law, and an orderly transition to a wireless world.
That's not all. He also hopes to educate a new generation of tech-savvy policymakers via seminars at CMU's School of Computer Science and the Heinz School of Public Policy. "This is an opportunity to get the nerds to talk to the wonks," Farber says. "They may not ever like one another, but I at least want them to be able to understand each other."
Until now, understanding has been more the exception than the rule. In 2000, when Farber served as chief technologist at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), he says he could count on one hand the number of senior policymakers who really understood the complex workings of the telecom industry.
Farber not only understands the technology -- he helped invent it. He co-developed the first electronic telephone switches while at Bell Labs in the 1960s. And in the '70s, he did groundbreaking research on distributed computing, which helped set the stage for the personal computer revolution.
That experience has informed Farber's accomplishments in the policy arena. During his year in Washington, he shepherded through the merger of AOL and Time Warner -- but not before extracting a promise that the media titan open its cable pipes to the competition. He also kept at bay congressional proposals to regulate the Internet and new communication tools such as instant messaging on the Web.
Now, more than ever, Farber believes sound policy is the cure to the New Economy's ills. The best route out of the telecom nightmare, he believes, is to make the FCC completely independent. "The only way the FCC can make effective policy is to remove it from the day-by-day politics on the Hill," he says. "The commissioners can't make tough decisions if a congressman is threatening to cut their budget in half. We need to appoint smart commissioners and let them go."
As for the conflict between Web technology and copyright law, Farber thinks a lot more focus should be put on "micropayments" -- systems that enable small purchases via the Net. That may sound like a small idea for a big thinker, but he believes it's a simple way to skirt a showdown over copyrights. He argues that if it were easier for consumers to make micropayments, Hollywood would have more luck turning the Internet into a profit center. That, in turn, would curb the tendency of entertainment companies to try to embed software in music and movies that restricts when and how customers can make copies.
On the wireless front, Farber has a plan to more efficiently distribute the scarce radio spectrum that's used to send broadcast-TV and cell-phone signals. Instead of having the FCC allocate the spectrum, Farber and another U Penn professor, Gerry Faulhaber, think Washington should let any organization that now controls spectrum auction it to the highest bidder. It's a way to break the spectrum log-jam caused by companies that jealously guard their allotted space but don't always make full use of it.
Farber concedes that such changes won't happen overnight. Yet he believes, "the way to spark discussion is to put far-out ideas on the table. They may go nowhere, but it moves thinking in the right direction." If nothing else, his work over the past 30 years proves the wisdom of that approach.
By Jane Black in New York