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Hill leader fights for digital-divide funds

House Commerce Telecommunications Subcommittee chairman Fred Upton tells President Bush's budget chief not to cut a technology fund offering Internet access to underserved areas.

    WASHINGTON--Congressional Republicans spent much of the 1990s trying to kill an obscure technology fund created by President Clinton, but now a leading Republican has come to its defense.

    Fred Upton, newly named as the chairman of the House Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, on Thursday wrote Office of Management and Budget Director Mitchell Daniels objecting to reports that the Commerce Department's fiscal year 2002 budget would reduce the Technology Opportunity Program (TOP) to $15 million from $42.5 million.

    TOP defenders have said the program helps close what's called the digital divide, where underserved areas lack the technology available in some urban and suburban areas, such as high-speed Net access. Republican opponents to TOP have countered that the program is overly broad; they favor funding other long-standing programs with more specific mandates. Upton's decision to challenge the Bush administration on TOP, however, suggests that the digital divide has become salient enough to cross party lines.

    "Eliminating nearly two-thirds of the program's entire funding would have a devastating effect on our efforts to ensure innovative technology--and all the opportunity it affords--is available to all Americans," Upton said in the letter.

    Upton said that at a recent bipartisan meeting with President Bush, Upton pledged his support to use technology as part of Bush's education agenda. He said slashing TOP "seems contrary to President Bush's goal of 'leaving no child behind.'"

    Many Republicans remain skeptical that the nation faces a digital divide, and some, such as House Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin of Louisiana (Upton's predecessor as subcommittee chair) and newly named Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell, prefer the phrase "so-called digital divide."

    "The digital divide means a lot of different things to a lot of different people," Powell said last week. "I think the term sometimes is dangerous in that it suggests that the minute there's a new and innovative technology in the market, there's a divide unless it is equitably distributed among every part of the society."

    "You know what?" Powell added. "It is going to be the wealthier people who have the largess to go out and buy $4,000 high-definition TVs first. Does that mean there's an HDTV divide? No."

    Upton argued that the digital divide goes beyond party affiliation or political leanings. "I am a dedicated fiscal conservative," Upton wrote, noting he too once worked at the federal Office of Management and Budget and understood the pressures of producing a budget. "However," he wrote, "the goal of using technology to improve the lives of all Americans, and to better prepare all of our youth for tomorrow must not be overlooked and underfunded."

    Created in 1994, TOP provides matching grants to state, local and tribal governments for innovative technology projects designed to improve libraries, public health services and education. About $150 million in grants have been awarded since its inception. Recently the program was renamed from the more unwieldy Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP).

    OMB and the Commerce Department had no comment on the still-developing fiscal year 2002 budget and TOP funding. What can be expected is that if TOP is slated for a reduction, it won't be alone. Bush is pushing a $1.6-trillion tax cut on Capitol Hill, and while that figure was based on returning some of the country's budget surplus, the slowing economy has motivated Bush to call for each agency of government with the exception of defense and education to do more with less.

    Powell's agency would not be affected by a cut in TOP, as that program is administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. But he's still concerned about the underlying philosophy behind the notion of universal coverage of new technologies, which he said is counter to market principles.

    "If the standard is you can't have it (a given new technology) unless you produce it for all," Powell said, "I'm very concerned that it won't get produced."