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10:15 AM
Michael Hickins
Michael Hickins

Obama Opening Door To Technology Innovators

Big businesses like Verizon and AT&T might be gnashing their teeth about the Obama Administration's policies and priorities, but small businesses and innovators should be rubbing their hands with glee.

Big businesses like Verizon and AT&T might be gnashing their teeth about the Obama Administration's policies and priorities, but small businesses and innovators should be rubbing their hands with glee.After almost nine months of anticipating presidential appointments and confirmations, the likes of new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski have finally gotten down to work, and while there haven't been any significant reforms yet, the still-new Administration is sending signals that changes are finally afoot.

Health care reform may or may not get bogged down in Congress, but federal agencies are beginning to put an Obama stamp in several other critical areas, from the wireless market to broadband penetration.

The most visible example thus far is the broadband stimulus package, which gives the National Technology and Information Administration (NTIA) a mandate to dole out billions in grants to companies and public-private partnerships proposing to bring broadband where none had existed before. The large incumbent carriers, including Verizon and AT&T, fear these grants could be used to create Frankenstein competitors and have promised to oppose any project they say competes with their existing offerings.

The NTIA's chief, Larry Strickling, agreed to allow the incumbents to challenge grant proposals on those grounds, but he also said he wouldn't simply take their word for it. This week, Strickling had even stronger words, saying that challengers would have to provide "overwhelming" evidence to support their contentions.

That's excellent news for local vendors who have become increasingly shut out of the business by the large national carriers, and who worried their proposals would get snuffed in the cradle by their more well-heeled national competitors.

Small business and entrepreneurs can expect more of the same. In the Web services arena, the FCC's Genachowski has come out in favor of network neutrality, and California Congressman Henry Waxman backed him up by introducing legislation that would make it the law of the land.

Not only would this prevent carriers from discriminating against particular kinds of content or content and service providers, but could lead to a return of the requirement for carriers to lease access to their lines.

Broadband industry consultant Craig Settles wrote in an email that

Strickling's declaration [and]… today's announced support of a Net neutrality law by House Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, and the heavy participation of local government-driven grant proposals, give hope to big wins for consumers and local businesses.

Here again, big business would like to keep the information highway to themselves, and argue they shouldn't have to share pipes they invested money to lay themselves. Their adversaries argue that the price for using public lands and having access to public infrastructure is a responsibility to sell access to anyone who's willing to pay. Art Brodsky of technology advocacy group Public Knowledge told me that "If you bring back access to networks which the FCC [under George W. Bush-appointed chairman Michael Powell] took away, who knows what would happen?"

Probably lower profits for the likes of Verizon but more opportunity for technology innovators. I'll be reaching out to some of those people in the days ahead, to hear what opportunities they envision for their businesses in the current climate.

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