Senate Returns With Crowded Tech Agenda

The United States Congress returns to work today with an unusually heavy tech
agenda ahead.

At the same time, Congress still is trying to resolve the issues left behind when
it adjourned in December.

Compounding the heavy and pressing congressional schedule is the fact that
2006 is an election year, with the entire House of Representatives and
one-third of the Senate up for grabs.

Election years create unique situations where lawmakers’ attention is split
between Washington and campaigning back home, forcing even tougher time
constraints on passing legislation.

“In an election year, we have to make decisions about what we can get done
and what we can’t,” said Andrea Hoffman, director of public policy for
TechNet, the exclusive CEO lobbying arm of the Silicon Valley.

As of Tuesday, most of those decisions hadn’t been made.

“TechNet is so diverse, we have many members on both sides of several
issues,” Hoffman said. “When we look at the 2006 policy agenda, we have to look
at areas where we have consensus among our members.”

Issues still on the table from 2005 include a hard date for the digital
television (DTV) transition and an extension of the research-and-development
tax credit.

Both issues, while non-controversial, are part of larger tax and revenue
bills that a bitterly divided Congress walked away from just days before
Christmas. Neither issue can be fully resolved until the House returns on
Jan. 31.

The Senate, though, gavels into session Wednesday morning and will almost
immediately begin to tackle a series of tech and telecom issues. Senate
Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens plans to hold 14 hearings on a wide
variety of topics between January and March.

The hearings begin with Internet pornography Thursday afternoon and end with
Voice over IP on March 14. Other topics include video
franchising, Internet neutrality, competition and convergence, wireless
issues and spectrum reform, rural telecom, the broadcast flag, and state, local
and municipal concerns.

Collectively, many of the issues before the Commerce Committee will
constitute the Senate’s 2006 efforts on telecom reform, a question that may
eventually set Silicon Valley interests against those of the Baby Bells and
cable companies.

The Bells and the cable companies are the dominant suppliers of broadband to
the American public, and both have spent billions to build fiber
networks capable of delivering voice, video and data.

Newly freed from regulatory constraints by a Supreme Court decision and
subsequent rulings by the Federal Communications Commission, the
broadband providers are looking for a fast return on their investments.

Both the Bells and the cable companies are urging Congress to pass
legislation to allow broadband providers to transmit their own services
faster and more efficiently than competing services. Among those services
are VoIP and Internet Protocol television.

That approach is opposed by Internet titans Amazon, eBay and Google, who
jointly signed a letter complaining that the Bells’ plan “fundamentally
changes the Internet, because it fails to adequately protect consumers’
ability to use their broadband connection to reach the content and services
they want.”

TechNet’s Hoffman refused to be drawn into the debate, merely stating that,
“There’s going to be an effort on both sides [to make their points].”

Beyond telecom reform questions, Congress is still grappling with legislation
involving spyware and data breach disclosures.

Hoffman also said TechNet would be mounting another effort in 2006 to
increase the number of H1-B visas, in order to create a larger talent pool
for the technology industry.

Last year, the Senate agreed to raise the cap on H1-B visas by 30,000
workers, a provision the House eliminated from the budget bill.

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