Gates Frets Over Congress' Long-Term Vision

Microsoft's chairman cautions that Washington is too often shortsighted when it comes to tech investments. 

WASHINGTON-Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates praised government technology policy March 13 but warned that lawmakers' desire for an instant return on long-term investments threatens what he termed "a good job of making the right decisions."

After spending March 12 jousting with members of the U.S. House Science and Technology Committee over contentious tech policies such as H-1B visas, Gates used his second public appearance here this week to work through a routine stump speech on the future of technology.

Inevitably, though, the conversation turned to politics as Gates fielded a handful of questions after his keynote address before more than 1,000 members of the Northern Virginia Technology Council (Microsoft, of course, is a board member). Joining Gates on the stage for the question-and-answer period was Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer.

"Historically, the United States has done a great job of doing the right investments," Gates said. "Government policies going back decades have worked very well."

However, he noted, Congress seems to want an immediate payback on investments in education and public-private partnerships. "The payoff doesn't come immediately. I'm very concerned about those sort of trade-offs," Gates said.

Mundie added that lawmakers' decisions are too often "skewed to the short term" and poll-driven. "It's important we have an informed policy decision."

White Spaces Spectrum and Smart People

Gates also used the occasion to give quick plugs for white spaces and the theme of his March 12 testimony: immigration reform. Without an increase in the specialized-occupation temporary worker H-1B visas, Gates said U.S. tech companies will continue to locate staff in countries that welcome foreign workers to do jobs that could otherwise be done in the United States.

"[Congress] needs to be letting the smart people in," Gates told the breakfast crowd.

As for other policies Gates favors, white spaces were on his mind. Although broadcasters are allocated hundreds of megahertz of spectrum in every U.S. television market, significant chunks are unused, serving as interference zones from other channels. The unused spectrum is known as white spaces.

The white spaces spectrum is considered ideal for wireless broadband because the radio signals penetrate walls and other objects. Microsoft, Google and other tech companies covet the spectrum as an alternative to telephone and cable companies delivering Internet connections. A group led by the companies known as the White Spaces Coalition has been unsuccessfully lobbying Washington all year for approval of unlicensed white spaces devices.

"I'm hopeful that white spaces can be made available. Let Wi-Fi explode," Gates said.