Kerry's broadband policy plans emerging

High-speed Internet issues are not likely to top Iraq headlines as presidential debate fodder, but the outline of the major candidates' broadband electoral planks are coming into view.

High-speed Internet issues are not likely to top Iraq headlines as presidential debate fodder, but the outline of the major candidates' broadband electoral planks are coming into view.

Democratic candidate John Kerry has yet to release his plan for high-speed Internet policy, although he is widely expected to do so in an upcoming speech. But in an interview with CNET News.com on Wednesday, Reed Hundt, a Kerry advisor and former Federal Communications Commission chairman, provided an outline of issues that he said would likely form parts of a Democratic plan for broadband.

Like President Bush, Kerry is seeking to expand access to broadband Internet services as widely as possible, but appears likely to propose tapping public funds to help reach that goal, Hundt said.

"Both candidates say they would like to see universal broadband," he said. "But with respect to the incumbent, he's got to run on the record. The United States has fallen behind Japan, Korea and other countries."

Broadband access is just one technology issue that is slowly rising to the surface of the year's political campaign. Outsourcing, an economic issue that has hit technology workers particularly hard in recent months, has also taken a key role. The candidates are also eagerly wooing Silicon Valley companies and executives for campaign funds.

Both parties have identified broadband Net access as a source of improving productivity and have pointed to expanding high-speed network availability as a way to help boost the country's economic growth. Bush has already stated his administration's goal to reach universal access to broadband by 2007, without providing additional details.

"We ought to have universal, affordable access to broadband technology by the year 2007," Bush said in a speech late last month. "And then, we ought to make sure that as soon as possible thereafter, consumers have plenty of choices."

Part of the Democratic plan would likely include defining broadband as a "universal service," Hundt said. Universal service is a government program that helps funnel funds to subsidize service in low-income and expensive rural areas. Adding high-speed Net access to that category would be an aggressive--and potentially expensive--way of expanding broadband investment.

Secondly, the government should "find the necessary public money" to help lower the cost of broadband services in rural and other underserved areas, Hundt said. Today, DSL (digital subscriber line) and cable broadband connections are often unavailable in outlying areas, with telephone and cable operators reluctant to make large investments in areas serving few customers. Satellite service, which is more widely available, typically costs twice as much, or more, than most basic broadband packages.

The price for end users in those areas could be lowered in several ways, potentially including a tax credit for consumers, Hundt said.

A Democrat policy would also focus on freeing new sections of the wireless spectrum that could be used for affordable broadband services, the former FCC chairman said.

Those proposals, even in outline, provide a more activist vision than Bush's administration has pursued. A Republican venture capitalist in Silicon Valley who serves as co-chair of the White House's Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Floyd Kvamme said that government involvement in the area was risky, however.

"The manner in which broadband will be delivered is an open competitive field today," Kvamme said. He cited the growing rivalries between telephone, cable, wireless, powerline and satellite companies. "I'm going to depend on competition between these various things as opposed to public funding and tax credits."

Kvamme said he could not speak for the White House in response to specific Democratic proposals.

The details of both candidates' plans are being eagerly awaited by a technology industry hoping for economic resurgence. However, few believe broadband or other high-tech issues ultimately will be dominant electoral forces in a year where headlines are dominated by war news and broader economic debates.

"Technology policy delivers about zero votes," said Rick White, the former Washington state congressman who now serves as the chief executive officer for TechNet, a bipartisan technology industry trade group. "People vote on other issues."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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