The U.S. House approved an $819 billion emergency stimulus bill Jan. 28 that pumps more than $40 billion into areas that have been on the technology sector's wish list, including $6 billion for broadband build-outs and $20 billion for health IT initiatives. The legislation also includes $11 billion to modernize the United States' electrical grid and $2 billion for energy efficiency and renewable energy R&D.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed 244-188. Not a single Republican voted for the bill. Republicans opposing the legislation sought broader tax cuts and less government spending. The Republican alternative legislation, for instance, slashed the spending in the bill dedicated to broadband and science and technology education grants and loans.
The bill now moves to the U.S. Senate, which is drafting its own recovery bill that is largely similar to the House legislation. Differences between the two chambers' legislation will be worked out in a conference committee, and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate hope to have a completed legislation package to President Obama by mid-February.
"I know that there are some who are skeptical of the size and scale of this recovery plan. And I understand that skepticism, given some of the things that have happened in this town in the past," Obama told a Jan. 28 gathering of CEOs at the White House. Among the executives at the meeting with the president on how to jump-start the economy were Google's Eric Schmidt, Motorola's Greg Brown, IBM's Sam Palmisano, Micron Technology's Steve Appleton and Xerox's Anne Mulcahy.
The House bill represents the first significant victory in Congress for network neutrality and open access networks. Recipients of the broadband build-out funding will be obligated to build or expand existing networks under open access and network neutrality rules, which mandate that operators open their networks to all devices like cell phones and laptops regardless of the manufacturer or provider, and which prohibit discrimination in the type of traffic the network handles.
The network neutrality and open access mandates do not apply to existing networks. The legislation also sets minimum speeds for the build-out's Internet connections and requires that 75 percent of the connections support enough speed to facilitate video conferencing.
While the telecom and cable companies that supply the vast majority of America's Internet connections were largely mum on the House bill, the wireless carriers' principal trade group, CTIA, urged lawmakers in a letter Jan. 21 to drop the open access provisions of the legislation, calling them "vague, undefined and unnecessary." The trade group suggested that the open access requirements would slow carriers' embrace of the grants.
"At the heart of this debate over the economy is the question [of] whether America will be the preferred destination for businesses to operate, entrepreneurs to start ventures, investors to make their financial bets and high-skilled workers to continue their careers," said Motorola's Brown. "President Obama understands that our economic policy must be geared towards strengthening U.S. competitiveness for the long term."
For his part, Obama said the eventual recovery bill will include "unprecedented measures that will allow the American people to hold my administration accountable. Instead of just throwing money at our problems, we'll try something new in Washington-we will invest in what works. Instead of politicians doling out money behind a veil of secrecy, decisions about where we invest will be made public on the Internet, and will be informed by independent experts whenever possible."
Obama said Americans will be able to see "how and where we spend taxpayer dollars" by going to a new Web site called Recovery.gov. "I firmly believe what Justice Louis Brandeis once said, that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and I know that restoring transparency is not only the surest way to achieve results, but also to earn back the trust in government without which we cannot deliver the changes the American people sent us here to make."