Chopra, Strickling Ease Through Senate Hearing

Federal government

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s nominee for the nation’s first chief technology officer is getting his day in court. Two, in fact.

The Senate Commerce Committee today held a confirmation hearing to consider President Obama’s nominations for a pair of key technology posts in the new administration, along with three other nominees for positions within its jurisdiction. Alas, owing to a busy day on the Senate floor and the absence of Committee Chairman John Rockefeller, the nominees fielded questions from a smattering of senators this morning before being dismissed with instructions to complete written questionnaires by 6 pm this evening, with the committee scheduled to vote at a meeting tomorrow.

Aneesh Chopra is expected to have little difficulty securing the CTO spot, and Lawrence Strickling seems a good bet to sail through as Obama’s pick to head the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a division of the Commerce Department.

In addition to the appointments of Chopra and Strickling, the Senate panel also considered the nominations of Randolph Babbit for administrator of the Federal Aviation Agency, John Porcari for deputy secretary of the Department of Transportation, and Rebecca Black, for Under Secretary for Economic Affairs at the Department of Commerce.

Save for some tough questions on safety standards for airlines directed at Babbit, the proceeding was a relatively congenial affair.

As Chopra steps into a newly created position, there remains some question about what his focus will be. A Hill staffer told that Chopra’s role was to be something of a “cheerleader” for forward-looking technology policies, both inside government and out. Indeed, in his opening remarks to the senators today, Chopra’s pompoms were waving as he pledged to promote IT policies that would “make jobs more plentiful, America more competitive, communications more affordable, broadband more abundant, families more connected and Americans more safe and secure.”

Chopra is on deck for two roles in the administration. In addition to the CTO job, if confirmed, he would also serve as the associate director for technology in the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President.

Chopra comes to the federal government from Virginia, where he rose to the rank of the state’s technology secretary after a series of government positions and a career in the private sector.

“He brings the right mix of technology background, of governmental background, and I know he’s going to do a wonderful job as CTO,” said Mark Warner, Chopra’s former boss who chaired the first portion of today’s hearing in Rockefeller’s absence. “He’s a bit of a whirlwind, and I know he’ll bring that same energy to this new position.”

Challenges ahead for NTIA

At NTIA, Strickling would have a full menu of issues in front of him. In short order, the nation’s transition to digital television is slated for June 12. The DTV transition was postponed from the original date of Feb. 17 due in large part to a budgetary shortfall in the NTIA’s program to supply coupons for the converter boxes required to keep older sets running.

Kay Bailey Hutchison, the Ranking Republican on the Committee who was instrumental in securing the original delay, asked Strickling for an assurance that DTV will be the first order of business once he takes over the agency.

“Yes, Senator, if confirmed it absolutely will be our highest priority,” he answered back. Of course, the NTIA has been headed by senior-level personnel in the absence of a permanent director, and Strickling said that the agency is ready for the June 12 switchover.

“Today, as I understand it, there is no backlog,” he said. “All signs look to be promising for a smooth transition.”

But once the DTV hurdle is cleared, NTIA will have host of other issues to tend to, including the dispersal of the $4.7 billion in grants for broadband projects included in the February economic stimulus bill.

The senators also noted that Strickling would oversee significant portions of the nation’s spectrum policy, which is rapidly emerging as an important area of technology policy.

NTIA will also play a key role in the future of Internet governance, as the Commerce Department’s partnership with ICANN, the international group in charge of assigning Internet names, expires at the end of September. Speculation has been building over ICANN’s fate going forward, with many in the international community looking to wrest the group responsible for global Internet governance from what they see as U.S. hegemony.

But the tech talk wasn’t exclusively reserved for Chopra and Strickling. Amy Kloubchar, a Minnesota Democrat, asked Porcari about the Transportation Department’s role in facilitating interstate communications networks as it undertakes highway projects.

“There is a lot of opportunity in both in new construction and rehabilitation of older systems to incorporate fiber and other utility and public communication elements,” Porcari responded. Members of the NTIA and the Rural Utilities Service, the other agency responsible for broadband stimulus grants, have hinted that they are eager to see applications for network projects that could dovetail with work being undertaken by other agencies, and have specifically mentioned laying fiber alongside DoT highway projects.

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