Fiber, filters, e-votes will spark debate this year

Shawn P. McCarthy

Several technology issues could start fights in federal, state and local governments.
Have you seen the colorful tubes of cabling being buried along streets and highways? They hold optical fiber, and several states have given utility and telecommunications companies the use of the rights of way in exchange for free bandwidth.

In most cases, bids are sought for exclusive access to rights of way, under an up-front agreement that the government involved receives specific network services.

Many think it's a good deal all around for both states and vendors. So it's interesting to watch a legal battle unfolding in West Virginia.

Late last year, Verizon Communications Inc. asked the U.S. District Court in Charleston to halt bidding on a telecommunications contract that could award exclusive services for up to four decades.

Verizon argued that the request for proposals from the West Virginia Division of Purchasing violates the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, which requires state governments to manage rights of way on a competitively neutral and nondiscriminatory basis. Gov. Cecil H. Underwood decided to withdraw the RFP so the state could consider the issue.

What happens in West Virginia will have far-reaching consequences for state officials who thought they had found cheap bandwidth. Such deals differ little from those in jurisdictions that demand free wiring for their schools and libraries when they select cable TV providers.

But because the fiber deals are on a much broader scale, it's likely that something will have to change. Maybe 40 years of exclusive use is just too long.

After several false starts and holdups, Congress last year approved the controversial Children's Internet Protection Act as a rider to HR 4577, the appropriations bill for the Education, Health and Human Services, and Labor departments. The legislation requires schools and libraries that receive federal funding for Internet access or equipment to have the capability to filter out pornographic material. Details are available at bdquery/z?d106:H.R.4577:.

The rider has inflamed groups such as the American Library Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center. They contend that it takes Net regulation power away from parents, teachers and librarians, and places it under the government or, worse, under the control of software that might filter more or less than required.

Finally, in the months ahead, we're sure to hear a lot about how online voting could make vote tallying easier. But a transition to online voting could be extremely expensive. Besides the necessary hardware and software, there's the problem of training everyone from election workers to voters.

Few communities are ready for a vote-from-home model, but kiosk voting at central locations is a logical next step. We might see a few trial kiosks by the next presidential election.

The biggest challenge will be in convincing people that such a vote is accurate. If data travels over a network, there are many places it can be intercepted and altered, so an accurate cross-check system would be necessary. Inc. of Garden City, N.Y., helped coordinate limited electronic voting for the Arizona Democratic primary this year. The company's ElectPro products are also in use by labor unions and associations. Emerging companies such as Safevote Inc. of San Rafael, Calif., and of Bellevue, Wash., are also active in the
e-vote market.

Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at [email protected].


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