Obama’s economic recovery plan won’t retrofit info superhighway

President-elect Barack Obama said last week that expanding broadband Internet access to underserved areas of the country would be a part of his American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan, an economic stimulus package being promoted as a massive shot in the arm for the ailing U.S. economy.

But an adviser on Obama’s presidential transition team warned against unreasonable expectations of what the stimulus package could be expected to deliver.

Expanding broadband access throughout the country using a variety of existing and yet-to-be developed technologies has been a part of Obama’s campaign from the beginning, said Blair Levin, who heads the technology initiative and government reform team for the presidential transition.

“The president-elect is very serious about reaching the national broadband goals,” Levin said. “But broadband piece of Obama’s agenda is not going to be done solely in the economy recovery plan.”

Levin spoke Wednesday at the State of the Net Conference in Washington, hosted by the advisory committee to the Congressional Internet Caucus. They were his first public remarks since joining the presidential transition team.

Obama made unprecedented use of the Internet and mobile technology during his presidential campaign, raising money and organizing supporters online. Levin, who was chief of staff to then-Federal Communications Chairman Chairman Reed Hundt in the 1990s, said the incoming president is committed to harnessing that technology in his administration to make government more responsive and transparent.

“The Internet offers an approach to running an entirely different type of government,” he said. He pointed to the interactive transition Web site as the face of this effort, saying it is a “precursor of ways to run a government.”

But to make the Internet a truly democratic tool for government, gaps in access will have to be bridged, providing broadband connectivity to unserved and underserved areas of the country.

Obama touched on this issue in his Jan. 8 speech at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., outlining his economic stimulus plans. He called the current economic downturn “a crisis unlike any we have seen in our lifetime,” and called for dramatic action in the form of massive economic investment that would save or create 3 million jobs.

Retrofitting America for a global economy will require “updating the way we get or electricity by starting to build a new smart grid,” he said. “It means expanding broadband lines across America, so that a small business in a rural town can connect and compete with their counterparts anywhere in the world.”

Levin said many observers and reporters have confused these immediate goals with the full broadband strategy of universal access. Broadband investment in the economic stimulus package is likely to be much more limited, he said. The build-out of a universal broadband infrastructure ultimately will have to be market driven rather than government sponsored.

“You don’t want to do anything that makes a competitive market difficult,” Levin said.

To have an economic impact, investments from the stimulus plan will have to be timely, targeted and temporary, and those restrictions will limit what can be done for broadband access. Initial investments will have to work with existing infrastructure rather than developing new technologies to deliver broadband to unserved areas.

“In terms of economic recovery, it is important to do something,” Levin said. “But don’t confuse a piece of the puzzle with the whole puzzle.”

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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