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Bush: Be "aggressive" on broadband

With some 100 tech CEOs and luminaries in attendance, President George W. Bush says technology is a priority--and he's got the budget to prove it.

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Technology is a crucial component in America's war against terrorism, President George W. Bush said Thursday, in his first major address to technology industry leaders since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In a 30-minute speech, Bush praised the technology industry in broad strokes and offered encouraging remarks for companies in the business of high-speed Internet access.

"The country must be aggressive with the expansion of broadband," he said, winning a loud round of applause from some 100 technology CEOs and luminaries gathered at the White House for the address.

Bush also commented on the government's $53 billion technology spending budget--the largest such appropriation in history. "If you're a recipient, make sure the product actually works," he said, half-jokingly.

The speech offered something of a change of pace at the White House: Technology has not been a top priority with the Bush administration, which has focused on the threat of terrorism since Sept. 11 and, before that, on energy policy following the collapse of Enron.

AOL Time Warner Chairman Steve Case introduced President Bush, who delivered his speech flanked by a who's who of technology leaders, including Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Netscape co-founder Jim Barksdale, Symantec CEO John Thompson, AT&T CEO Michael Armstrong and Intel co-founder Gordon Moore.

In addition to the speech, attendees took part in three panels addressing technology policy: homeland security, the economic recovery and education.


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Representing the government in the discussions were Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, and the heads of the Commerce, Education, Labor and Health and Human Services departments.

According to one person who attended the panels, the discussions were useful, but there were "no epiphanies." Another attendee said the event was, for many, a good sales opportunity.

"There were a lot of computer salesmen drooling in the audience" over the government's IT budget, Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff said.

While limited, Bush's remarks about broadband drew the greatest response. The hot-button issue has sparked a wave of lobbying for new rules--and even subsidies--to help bolster an industry struggling with uneven regulation, high costs and unrealistically low pricing.

A series of competing broadband bills have been introduced in Congress with the intention of sorting out competition and speeding consumer adoption of high-speed Internet service.

Broadband providers have been fighting for additional regulation to address competition in their industry. "Open access," or the ability of broadband providers to share lines into a consumers' home, has been a contentious issue.

Although both cable and digital subscriber line (DSL) providers offer broadband access to the Internet, DSL technology has been treated differently because it uses telephone lines to transmit data. As a result, DSL companies have been required to share their lines with competitors (as dictated by older telecommunications regulations), while cable companies have not.

DSL providers have complained the situation has put them at a competitive disadvantage, pointing to adoption statistics as evidence to support their claims.

Although Bush's remarks did little to clarify the many vexing policy issues plaguing the high-speed Net access business, some attendees said they were encouraged.

"For my taste, they're focusing on the right issues," said Napster CEO Konrad Hilbers. "Broadband is very high on our agenda. I'm glad broadband was brought up with a very high priority."

Senate leaders have also called on the Bush administration to better define the nation's broadband strategy. On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt sent Bush a letter outlining concerns over the accessibility of high-speed Net access.

"The nation must have a plan to ensure that consumers have affordable broadband Internet access at the maximum speeds, enabling them to experience the full potential of the Internet and the information technology revolution," the legislators wrote.

Daschle and Gephardt pointed out that $750 million has already been earmarked to help underwrite the costs of deploying rural broadband, a provision approved as part of the Farm Bill that is expected to provide high-speed Net access to some 6 million homes.

Industry groups have proposed several national broadband goals to be used as benchmarks, including one from technology lobby group TechNet that would see 100 million homes and small businesses connected to the Internet at a speed of 100mbps (megabits per second) by 2010.

TechNet Executive Vice President Connie Correll admitted the plan is ambitious, but said it was meant to encourage "big thinking" on the topic.

ZDNet's Dan Farber contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.