Down To Business: Technology Debate On The Campaign Trail

When you've got border fences and melting ice caps on which to grandstand, who needs tech policy? The country does--or at least some cogent discussion of the issues.
As the presidential primary campaigning starts to heat up, the candidates are being pressed on the biggest issues of the day--national defense, education, health care, immigration, the environment. Technology policy isn't top of mind; net neutrality doesn't quite stir the masses like border control and global warming. But it's a conversation worth forcing, as our country's technology industry and business technology applications are core to our international competitiveness. So here's a very short list of issues to consider.

Next-generation tech workforce. Here, many of the top-shelf issues, including education, immigration, and even defense, are intertwined. The 40,000-foot view: The United States isn't graduating enough engineers and computer specialists to meet future demand. U.S.-based companies are hiring tech pros offshore while lobbying to make it easier to import talent. Meanwhile, critics argue that domestic companies aren't doing enough to cultivate their people and that offshoring and immigration abuses threaten not only our competitiveness, but our security and overall standard of living as well.

Questions for the candidates. Where do you stand on immigration reform, including expanding H-1B visas and evaluating visa and immigration applicants based on their skills and advanced degrees? What would you do to promote and improve science and math schooling? Would you spend substantially more money there? Would you give companies incentives to attract and develop employees at home? Would you expand the government bureaucracy to tackle these issues, or do you favor market-based approaches?

Universal broadband Internet access, including wireless connectivity. The professed goal: Upgrade and expand the U.S. telecom infrastructure to improve education, health care, and other critical services, and to make U.S. businesses more competitive by improving remote and home-office connectivity. Some pundits go so far as to call on the presidential candidates to declare the Internet a "public good," putting Net access on an equal plane with electricity, water, highways, and public schooling.

Questions for the candidates. Like most big infrastructure issues, this one comes down to money and market approach. It would, for example, cost an estimated $15 billion to $20 billion more just to roll out DSL to everyone not currently wired. Who foots that bill, assuming that network operators already serve most of the places where they can turn a profit?

Ubiquitous wireless data connectivity is a whole other Marshall Plan--and black hole, if you consider the business and technical difficulties of this country's politically driven muni Wi-Fi build-outs. Do we raise the many billions of dollars by charging all current subscribers a fee to subsidize nationwide wireless rollouts? Do we make it easier for the private sector to build out broadband networks by freeing up radio spectrum and reducing regulations?

Net neutrality. Put 20 voters in a room and you'll be lucky to find one who can muster an informed opinion on this issue, which boils down to whether carriers should be allowed to charge Web companies tiered prices depending on their content and the level of service the carriers are providing to them.

Questions for the candidates. Should we just stick with the Internet status quo--"pure" net neutrality? Or since carriers own and operate the Internet's backbone networks, how much leeway should they have to charge extra for enhanced security and prioritized delivery of certain content? What is the role of regulators to ensure that carriers don't favor their own services and those of fat-cat partners to the detriment of others?

Rather than set a sweeping tech industrial policy and micromanage its every element, the U.S. president must play to the country's main capitalist strength: can-do entrepreneurialism. We can set ambitious tech-related goals and challenge the private sector and government agencies to go after them, but throwing money in every direction isn't the answer.

Rob Preston,
VP/Editor In Chief
[email protected]

To find out more about Rob Preston, please visit his page.

Editor's Choice
Mary E. Shacklett, President of Transworld Data
James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer