Industry groups and advocacy organizations are heartened by the Senate's passage of the economic stimulus package, and appear hopeful that key IT provisions will remain intact as negotiators work swiftly to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill in conference.
The Senate version of the bill, which carries a price tag of $838 billion, would allocate $7 billion for building high-speed networks in rural and underserved areas, while also sending tens of billions of dollars to other IT initiatives, such as digitizing medical records and modernizing the nation's electrical grid.
The House bill, valued at $819 billion, has similar provisions, though the broadband funding would be capped at $6 billion, and would be administered through different mechanisms of the government.
The negotiating conference to reconcile the bills began almost immediately after yesterday's Senate vote, and a final version could be headed to the president's desk this week. For the host of groups in and around the IT industry that have long been clamoring a more active government role in promoting broadband access and adoption, the stimulus package will be welcome news.
"There are a lot of households where broadband Internet access is just too expensive, and there are others where the networks just don't reach," Cathy Sloan, director of government relations for the Computer and Communications Industry Association, told reporters on a conference call Wednesday. "We think that this legislation will take a big step toward addressing that market failure and allowing all Americans to become part of the digital age."
The movement on the bill drew similar praise from the Business Software Alliance, an industry group representing major software and hardware firms like Microsoft, IBM, Cisco and Apple.
"Smart investments in (IT) will benefit all Americans," BSA CEO Robert Holleyman said in a statement. "IT offers solutions to almost every economic and social challenge we face, from creating jobs, to making businesses more competitive, improving healthcare and making the U.S. more energy-independent."
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The Net neutrality debate has long been characterized more by talk than action, but both versions of the stimulus package include language that would require any ISP that took stimulus grant money to adopt some type of Net neutrality provisions.
The House version of the bill would require ISPs to attach an open-access condition to their networks. While it leaves it up to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to define the term "open access," the provision could require carriers to allow rival firms to run competing networks on their infrastructure.
Such a condition would garner strong support from groups like Public Knowledge, which, in addition to Net neutrality, have advocated for greater competition among ISPs. "Now we have a series of regional duopolies with no new competition in sight without open access," said Gigi Sohn, Public Knowledge's president.
The Senate bill does not mention open access, but it contains a stipulation that "non-discrimination and network interconnection obligations" be attached as contractual requirements for any firms taking grant money. "We don't see any conflict in the openness provisions and hope to see them in the final bill," Sohn said.