And Now, a Peek at Google’s D.C. Agenda

(L to R) Stephen J. Ezell, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation; Harry Wingo, Google; Michael Oldak, Edison Electric Institute.
(L to R) Stephen J. Ezell, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation; Harry Wingo, Google; Michael Oldak, Edison Electric Institute.
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WASHINGTON — Google’s not just a technology company anymore.

The search giant that built its name and empire on a superior technical platform to help people retrieve information from the Web is wading deeper into the policy arena with each passing year.

With a new administration taking shape in Washington, D.C., Google is working to raise awareness of broadband deployment and energy reform.

During a policy debate that Google gathered at its D.C. outpost, experts and advocates alike argued that the incoming Obama administration and Congress can solve those twin challenges.

They’re not unrelated. Harry Wingo, Google’s policy counsel on energy issues, drew a parallel between the challenge the government faces today in crafting a policy to bring broadband to everyone, and that which faced Franklin Roosevelt 75 years ago, when many parts of the country were still without electricity.

Roosevelt’s solution was the rural electrification project, a New Deal initiative where the government partnered with private utilities to wire up the nation’s sparsely populated interior.

“Somebody had the vision to realize we want all Americans to have access to this,” Wingo said. “At the time it was electricity. But now there are complete overlaps between our quality of life and the impact that both the power system and the Internet have.”

But yesterday’s electrical grid isn’t sustainable to meet the energy challenges of the future, Wingo said, echoing a position Google CEO Eric Schmidt has advanced on many occasions.

Google’s push for a clean-energy overhaul became a formal company objective in October when its philanthropic arm announced its energy plan. It calls for significant reductions in carbon emissions and investment in alternative energy sources.

The transition to a so-called smart grid, an adaptive electrical infrastructure whose architecture would be modeled on that of the Internet, should develop apace with universal broadband deployment, the panelists asserted.

“I look at the changes for the electric industry similar to the changes that the Internet has brought to all of our lives,” said Michael Oldak, senior director of the Edison Electric Institute, an association of public electric companies. “Once we apply this technology to the electric grid and give customers the information and the tools to respond, we’re going to be able to meet our energy challenges much better in the future.”

A grid for every house?

The Internet-enabled smart grid that Oldak, Google and others envision would drive energy conservation with features like real-time metering, so customers could monitor how much electricity they use from day to day, rather than waiting for the monthly bill. The logic is simple: as consumers grow more aware of how much electricity is costing them, they will be more likely to modify their habits, saving both money and energy in the process.

Wingo calls it the “Prius effect.” An in-dash meter in the popular hybrid car displays mileage-per-gallon in real time, reminding a driver to ease up on the gas as he sees the rate drop.

“You don’t have that for your home,” he said. “Imagine if you went to the grocery store and you weren’t charged anything until the end of the month — your spending habits would be different.”

Another idea involves Internet-enabled smart appliances — like a networked toaster — that could modulate their energy usage to match the needs of the grid, powering down in times of peak consumption.

To the panelists, the convergence of broadband and energy usage is yet another sign that high-speed Internet service should be elevated to the level of a utility.

“It’s a necessity, not a luxury,” said Gigi Sohn, president of the media-reform group Public Knowledge.

“If we had the kind of adoption of water or electricity or gas heat that we have for broadband, it would be a national scandal,” she said. Looking beyond the energy grid, broadband evangelists see its potential for revolutionizing crucial areas like education and healthcare.

“There needs to be an attitude adjustment that broadband is critical to full participation in our society and its social and economic welfare,” Sohn added.

How the Obama administration moves forward with its plans to accelerate broadband deployment and adoption remains unclear. But the panelists were uniformly excited that the president-elect has signaled intentions to elevate technology as a priority, both through his policy agenda and his own use of the Internet throughout the campaign.

Among the proposals floated involve a reform of the Universal Service Fund, the government subsidy to deliver wireline phone service to poor and remote Americans. That fund, administered by the Federal Communications Commission, is a politically charged issue, and a frequent target of critics of government waste, so expanding it to include subsidies for broadband deployment would be a tough fight.

Obama has also called for a reexamination of how the nation’s wireless spectrum is allocated. Supporters say that reallocating vacant or underused spectrum to innovative new technologies could boost inexpensive broadband deployment. The FCC recently took a step in that direction with its vote to free the unused spectrum that sits between TV channels, known as white spaces, to enable a new class of wireless devices.

In the meantime, Google, which was one of the most ardent proponents of the white spaces issue, can look forward to a more favorable climate in the new administration. CEO Schmidt has been serving as an economic advisor to the president-elect, and’s Sonal Shah was yesterday named to the transition team’s technology policy advisory group.

On the energy front, environmental advocates will likely get s boost from a shuffle in the leadership of a key committee in the House of Representatives. In a contentious race, California Democrat Henry Waxman ousted John Dingell, D-Mich., from his chairmanship of the Committee on Energy and Commerce. Waxman, an outspoken environmentalist, will head the committee overseeing legislation on issues such as climate change and clean energy.

His victory over Dingell, who has been seen as a long-time friend of the automobile industry, suggests that Obama will have a strong ally as he pushes forward his environmental agenda.

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