Locke Clears Questions on Security, Broadband

President Obama’s nominee for Commerce Secretary appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee for his job interview this morning, outlining his plans to turn the department into an “engine of job growth and economic renewal” in a congenial confirmation hearing that seems likely to put him on the fast track for taking a seat in the Cabinet.

Former Washington Gov. Gary Locke told the panel that under his direction, the Commerce Department would promote pro-trade policies, clean energy and vigorous IT initiatives.

Locke gave a glossy outline of his hopes for public-private partnerships where businesses, universities and community groups would work with government agencies at all levels to revive the sagging economy.

“Together we will come up with innovative solutions to create jobs that are made in America and stay in America, to foster entrepreneurship and growth across all sectors of the economy, to deliver broadband to communities far and wide, urban and rural,” Locke said.

After the hearing, several Republican staffers told InternetNews.com that they expected Locke would breeze through the confirmation process as early as tomorrow morning. “If there were any major objections, they probably would have come up this morning,” one aide said of the collegial hearing.

Locke’s confirmation proceeding is of keen interest to the IT industry, as the Commerce Department is now at the center of a massive federal initiative to spur the expansion of high-speed Internet access in regions of the country that are currently underserved or unserved. The recently enacted economic stimulus bill allocated $7.2 billion to that end, of which $4.7 billion is to be administered by the National Telecommunication Information Administration, an agency within the Commerce Department.

The Obama administration has had a tough road in its search for a Commerce secretary. The president’s first choice, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, stepped aside amid a pay-for-play corruption scandal that has cast a shadow over his office.

Obama next reached across the aisle, tapping Republican Sen. Judd Gregg from New Hampshire, only to see him withdraw his nomination as the debate over the stimulus package was raging. Gregg cited fundamental differences with the president in his vision for nursing the economy back to health.

Locke’s nomination drew cheers from some corners of the tech industry, including the biggest business in his home state.

“As Governor of Washington, Gary Locke worked with state businesses both large and small to successfully strengthen the state’s economy and improve its global competitiveness,” Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith said of the appointment late last month.

Robert Holleyman, president and CEO of the Business Software Alliance, offered similar praise, declaring that Locke had shown throughout his career that “IT can provide solutions to pressing issues such as expanding health care to vulnerable children and adults, making government more accessible to the public, and raising academic achievement in our public schools.”

Locke offered no specifics on how he plans to steer the NTIA’s administration of broadband grants through the stimulus program, but he praised the leadership already in place at the agency for moving ahead swiftly with the process. The NTIA is in the midst of a rapid-fire series of public meetings to solicit comments from interested parties before it sets the final rules for the grant applications.

“The people at the Department of Commerce have already implemented a very transparent very open process of soliciting input from everyone — no secret meetings, public meetings, [accepting] input and suggestions over the Internet,” Locke said. “It’s important that in the short timeframe that we have for deployment of these dollars that we involve all the stakeholders.”

The stimulus bill directs the NTIA to commit the broadband grant money by the end of fiscal 2010.

“The president has placed a great priority on this and has a great personal interest with respect to bringing advanced modern telecommunications to the entire nation,” Locke said. “It is also a priority of this Department of Commerce.”

Page 2: Cybersecurity concerns

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Senators also asked Locke about how he would direct the department to address cybersecurity, which Committee Chairman John Rockefeller, D-W.V., called a “fearsome and awesome problem.”

“It’s a question of trying to keep up. You’ll never get ahead,” Rockefeller said. “It’s a losing game for us, and it’s a potentially catastrophic national event.”

Locke responded that he hoped to work in concert with leaders across the many federal agencies dealing with cybersecurity, as well as key members of Congress to develop a coordinated defense operation.

“As you indicated, a cyber attack could cripple the banking system, communications systems, electricity — how any and all businesses operate — it could bring our country to a grinding halt,” he said. “I’d like to work more with you and learn more about your thoughts, but clearly it’s going to require a lot of interagency cooperation and greater attention.”

The Commerce Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on cyber threats tomorrow morning.

Locke also touted the deep talent pool at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a non-regulatory agency within the Commerce Department that promotes the nation’s digital infrastructure through standards and scientific and technical research.

At the same time, Locke voiced concern about the ability of agencies like NIST to attract and retain top talent as they compete with firms in the private sector that can offer higher salaries.

Locke said he would like to see the government reevaluate its compensation and promotion policies to make it a more attractive employer and “keep the best and the brightest within government.”

The nominee also faced questions on the digital television transition. NTIA is responsible for distributing coupons for the converter boxes that older TV sets will need to receive digital broadcasts. Late last year, the agency reported that it had run out of money for the program, with millions of people still waiting for their coupons. That shortfall was a major reason the Commerce Committee whipped up a bill to delay the DTV transition from February until June, with leaders in both chambers and parties vowing that there would be no further extensions.

Locke said that NTIA has been quickly clearing through the waiting list of 4.2 million requests, representing more than 2 million households.

“We are on track to have that backlog completely eliminated by next week,” Locke said, though he warned that the efforts by the government and television broadcasters to educate consumers about the transition were falling short.

“Most people who are affected don’t understand what digital or analog television is,” he said. “I think that the public service announcements and education messages have to by crystal clear.”

In closing the hearing, Rockefeller asked Locke to submit written answers to the remaining questions from members of the panel by this evening, so that the committee could hold a vote his confirmation tomorrow morning. Locke’s nomination would then pass to the full Senate, where Rockefeller would seek unanimous consent in the hopes of confirming him into the Cabinet, circumventing floor discussion and a vote.

“I’d like to see you in place as soon as possible for the good of the nation,” Rockefeller said.

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