RealTime IT News

The Hype in The Broadband Pipes

Later this month, a number of Silicon Valley executives plan to swarm Capitol Hill to press lawmakers on technology policy. They shouldn't bother; neither the White House nor Congress cares in 2005.

In the relative order of issues this year in Washington, technology policy ranks slightly behind naming post offices. The White House ranks tech issues perhaps even less so.

Fortunately, that's a good thing. When Washington acts impulsively, bad things can happen. Think, Patriot Act. Even when bad things don't happen, nothing happens. Think, CAN SPAM.

There are several reasons for Washington's technology indifference this year. First and foremost: voters. Visiting with voters during their August recess, lawmakers and their staff report there was no clamor among the general populace for, say, telecom reform.

Voters are interested in the war in Iraq, the cost of gasoline and the growing deficit. But when it comes to the digital television (DTV) transition that could usher in a new era of wireless broadband -- not so much.

"Let's just say no one came to us and demanded greater broadband penetration rates," said one staffer.

The other major reason tech issues haven't reached even backburner status in Washington is that 2005 is not an election year.

When the 109th Congress convened in January, no one expected to pass much legislation by December. Why spend any political capital on issues the voters don't even care about? Why do something now you can put off until next year?

Congress has good reason to feel this way. Instead of voting for Sen. Orrin Hatch's (R-Utah) Induce Act, just let the Supreme Court take care of it, which it did in June. The justices essentially proved Hatch's point, and no one had to vote against their file-swapping children.

Open access to cable providers' pipes into the homes? Why alienate some voters by seeming to prefer the Bells over independent broadband providers when, again, the Supreme Court could and did deal with the issue in the Brand X case.

Telecom reform? Why face tough issues when you have the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to do the heavy lifting?

Let Kevin Martin and the FCC test the tenuous legal waters of mandating wiretap and E911 accessibility for Voice over IP .

Politicians' bold talk of telecom reform so far is just so much hype in the broadband pipes.

Next year, though, get the women and the children off the streets. It will be an election year and the second and final term of the 109th Congress.

Appealing retail voter issues such as anti-spyware and data-breach disclosure laws will take the stage early.

"Voters have short memories," one tech trade association lobbyist recently told internetnews.com. "If you pass those things now, it's not nearly as effective as telling voters next year, 'Hey, I just voted against spyware to protect you.'"

The fact that anti-spyware legislation won't stop spyware doesn't seem to matter. Earlier this week, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) again told a Senate subcommittee new laws are not necessary.

"The majority of spyware distributed today is from foreign countries," FTC Chairman Deborah Majoris said. "Technology is what got us here and technology is what will eventually get us out of here."

Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) contended that spyware is already against the law, but Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) promised a bill on the president's desk by the end of the year. Of course, he promised the same thing last year.

Next year may also finally see Congress do something about the DTV transition, an issue most lawmakers are loath to touch. No one wants to run for election as the person who shut off free, over-the-air analog television.

Nevertheless, the lure of selling for billions the analog spectrum currently occupied by broadcasters is likely to put some backbones in lawmakers. With the deficit growing every day, Republicans are even considering a subsidy program to help people get digital converter boxes.

As for the broader and far more important issues, it would be wise to remember the 1996 Telecommunications Act took almost 10 years to come to pass. Which only goes to prove again that courage is one of those things missing in the shallow end of the political gene pool.