The New Washington Tech Agenda
Since technology is the key to virtually all of President-elect Barack Obama's plans for sweeping changes in the direction of the country and the way Washington does business with its citizens, it is not surprising Obama brings a decidedly different technology agenda to the White House than President Bush did eight years ago.
Bush praised technology as a key driver of the economy and worked to remove government barriers such as laws, rules and regulations to let the free market make its decisions on winners and losers. Obama, though, embraces technology as the path to innovation and the future and plans to invest heavily in technology as the key to reviving the economy.
An eWEEK look at the emerging new Washington tech agenda:
Would innovation blossom if virtually any legal Internet service or software program could run on any broadband network? Obama thinks so. Broadband providers such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast do not, conjuring up nightmare traffic management scenarios. One of Obama's earliest tech campaign promises was to throw his support behind network neutrality, which would prohibit discrimination in the delivery of broadband services by providers such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast.
Absent network neutrality rules, Obama said, "you could get much better quality from the Fox News site and you'd be getting rotten service from some mom and pop site. And that, I think, destroys one of the best things about the Internet-which is that there is this incredible equality there."
Prime example? In August, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that Comcast violated the agency's Internet policy when it throttled peer-to-peer traffic by BitTorrent, a clear discrimination against the P2P provider. The agency ordered Comcast to stop the practice but did not fine the cable giant. Comcast has sued to overturn the decision, claiming the FCC does not have the legal authority to impose the decision.
Obama has already promised to put network neutrality proponents on the FCC, but if Comcast wins its case against the agency (and many think it will) Obama is likely to put his support behind federal legislation to mandate network neutrality. His first choice, though, is to leave the issue with the FCC. All this will take time to play out.
The technology sector has long fought for an increase in H1-B visas, a specialized-occupation (i.e., tech-related) temporary worker. While Obama has said he will support a temporary increase in the H1-B cap, his heart is not in it. The president-elect, along with a number of Midwest lawmakers, does not see it as a long-term solution to providing the high-tech community with skilled workers.
Comprehensive immigration reform with an emphasis on retraining workers who lose jobs to offshoring is a top priority for Obama. As with under Bush, though, as long as H1-Bs are tied to immigration reform and its more incendiary border security and amnesty issues, the visa issue is likely to go unresolved with, perhaps, only a small bump in the number of H1-B visas.
A more likely scenario is an overhaul reform of the H1-B system. A recent U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services report said as many as 20 percent of the applications may be fraudulent or technically flawed. Cleaning up the system would free more H1-B visas for tech companies.
Along with network neutrality and H1-B visas, patent reform is a top priority for Washington technology policy shops that want to limit infringement damages and install a process to weed out weak patents. So far, that effort has failed in the face of fierce opposition from the pharmaceutical, biotech and manufacturing industries.
Tech scored a major victory last year when the U.S. House approved the first significant overhaul of patent law in a half century, narrowing the definition of willful infringement and limiting infringement damage awards to the actual value of the technology involved instead of the overall value of the completed product. The bill also created a "second window" to challenge patents issued by the Patent and Trademark Office. The legislation, though, died in the U.S. Senate, putting tech back at square one.
Obama, it appears, is on tech's side in the patent reform battle that will surely resurface in the next Congress. Obama supports reform producing "gold-plated patents" to "reduce the uncertainty and wasteful litigation that is currently a significant drag on innovation." He's backing opening up the patent process to citizen review and giving the Patent and Trademark Office the resources to improve patent quality.
You've read the numbers over and over: The United States is falling behind other industrialized nations in overall broadband penetration, putting the United States at a distinct disadvantage in the global innovation race. Like Bush, Obama wants affordable, universal broadband for all Americans. Unlike Bush, Obama may actually do something about it.
Obama wants to expand the USF (Universal Service Fund), currently a tax on consumer telephone bills dedicated to extending phone service to rural and other high-cost areas, to also cover broadband connections. Obama aims to redirect USF funds in combination with promotion of next-generation broadband facilities and new tax and loan incentives to greatly expand the reach of U.S. high-speed Internet services.
USF reform is currently before the FCC, where commissioners are seemingly deadlocked over expanding the system to cover broadband connections. An Obama FCC is likely to change that.
Obama wants a "smarter, more efficient and more imaginative use" of the nation's spectrum as yet another way to bring broadband to Americans.
The FCC, under Republican Kevin Martin, is already moving in that direction with its decisions to mandate open access for portions of its recently concluded 700MHz auction, to open the interference buffer zones between television channels for the use of white space devices and a proposal for a spectrum auction in 2009 that would require the winning bidder to provide a free wireless broadband tier to 50 percent of the United States in four years and 95 percent of the country within 10 years.
Republicans in Congress have opposed all of those proposals. Obama's election not only puts a Democrat in the White House, but Democrats also strengthened their majorities in both houses. More spectrum clearly signals a new day for wireless innovation.
A centerpiece of Obama's campaign, Obama is proposing that the government invest heavily ($150 billion over the next 10 years) in smart utilities, electrical grids and meters. The investment, Obama claims, will pay off with the generation of five million new jobs, almost of all of them in domestic tech firms that dominate the global smart technologies field.
A smart electrical grid, for instance, can send data to power companies every 6 seconds instead of every 30 days, allowing the utilities to constantly monitor energy usage and, in theory, make adjustments to conserve energy and, potentially, reduce the need for more power plants.
Obama believes green IT is not only financially viable but also deployable in the short term. He also promises to spend big on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, another growing area of technology.
Tech is not so keen on Obama's stance that any future trade agreements include strong labor, environmental and safety standards. As a U.S. senator, Obama opposed trade deals with Panama, Colombia and South Korea. During his campaign, he called for renegotiating NAFTA. Globalization, he wrote in opposing CAFTA, is "not someone's political agenda."
That would be Silicon Valley moguls who have never met a trade deal they didn't like, even if the murder rate among our trading partners' labor leaders is criminal.
Since a recent PriceWaterhouseCoopers study concluded that Obama's overhaul of the U.S. health care system would cost the federal government $75 billion the first year alone, reducing the cost of health care is essential, and Obama is again turning to technology.
Most medical records are still stored on paper with all the inherent drawbacks that involves: coordinating care, measuring quality and reducing medical errors. Processing paper claims also costs twice as much as processing electronic claims.
Obama promises to invest $50 billion over the next five years to move the U.S. health care system to broad adoption of standards-based electronic health information systems, including electronic health records.
Obama plans to bring the same tech-centric focus of his campaign to his new government. Obama spoke often on the campaign trail of using technology to make the government more open to citizens.
Among his proposals: making more government reports and data available online; Webcasts of all government meetings; and creating tech tools to allow users to track federal grants, contracts, lobbyist information and earmarks. He even proposes a five-day public comment period on any legislation pending before the White House.
Given Obama's bent to make the government more transparent to citizens, for the tech entrepreneurs who pioneered manipulating a flood of public information available during the campaign into actionable data, the future looks bright.