Tech's Skin in the Stimulus Game

Just two days after the U.S. House passed an economic stimulus package that includes $6 billion for broadband build outs to rural and underserved areas, the sniping has begun that lawmakers are short-changing the country's broadband future.

The Wall Street Journal notes, "The funding that Congress is likely to set aside for build-outs of high-speed Internet in its economic-stimulus package falls short of what service providers say is required to reach rural and unserved areas, based on initial cost estimates by several companies." BusinessWeek huffs that, "The House bill allocated the same amount of money to weatherizing the homes of low- and moderate-income people."

Can you believe it, spending the same amount of money to keep people warm in the winter as the House proposes to spend bringing YouTube and MySpace to the hard scrabble ranchers of Pleasanton, Texas, or the good farmers of Dry Creek, Iowa?

"Many in the tech industry are contemplating some tough questions: Why did broadband get slighted? Will the technology get more government funding in the future? And does the debate over broadband foreshadow how the technology community will be treated in the future by the Obama Administration?" writes Spencer E. Ante in BusinessWeek.

Of course, Ante doesn't quote a single person among the "many" asking those tough questions. He does, though, quote folks who refute the whole premise of his story, including Washington tech leading lights like Blair Levin, one of President Obama's top tech advisers, and Richard Whitt, Google's telecom and media pointman on Capitol Hill.

Levin makes the excellent point that, perhaps, one of the reasons the House came up short of some estimates that lawmakers would allocate as much as $10 billion to $11 billion for broadband build outs is Congress simply has no idea how many people in America don't have broadband. There's never been a comprehensive mapping of the country and no one really believes the numbers bandied about by telecom and cable companies.

It could be the $6 billion, or even the $9 billion being suggested by the Senate, will be enough to wire up the country. Then again, it may not, which is why the House allocated $350 million for broadband mapping to identify underserved or unserved areas. "Did we leave the door open to additional money?" Levin told BusinessWeek. "I think the answer is the door is open and should be open."

Whitt makes a telling point when he tells the magazine the stimulus package is probably the wrong vehicle for dreamers who hope the government will simply pay for everything.

"Serious technology upgrades require more than a three-year window and more resources," said Richard Whitt. "It may be this is not the right platform for creating a 21st century infrastructure."

Critics are also ignoring that tech stands to gain from more than $30 billion (and likely to grow more when it hits the Senate), including $20 billion in spending on health IT, $11 billion for improving the electrical grid and $2 billion in grants and loans to support U.S. manufacturers of advanced vehicle batteries and battery systems.

Much of the carping is simply political posturing. Why tell the Senate $6 billion is an excellent start when more money is likely to be had, whether it will be well spent or not?