Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain both have given thumbs up to improving Internet service and training in rural communities, but they have different approaches to achieving those ends.
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The 1990s saw scads of discussion and debate, with no small amount of hype, concerning the World Wide Web and its importance for keeping America competitive in the global economy. Online businesses of all sorts proliferated. Then, the Internet bubble burst, at least on the financial side. Over the past eight years, with little national leadership on the issue, the significance of World Wide Web faded into the background behind national security.
While the Web is not at the forefront of presidential politics in 2008, it’s clearly part of the big picture, the picture that includes a chaotic economy, continuing declines in many rural and urban communities, and opportunities the new technology offers.
The websites of John McCain and Barak Obama reveal subtle and not-so-subtle ideological and policy differences. The candidates’ disagreement about the role of government and its relationship to markets point up their differing approaches to information technology (IT).
Both candidates support continuing IT development, recognizing it as a crucial part of the nation’s economy, politics, social relationships, educational aspirations, security, and competitive position in global affairs. Yet the difference in the candidates’ tone is clear in several respects. Obama emphasizes technology as vital to building a healthier democracy and politics. McCain puts more emphasis on technology in the context of global competition.
Both candidates acknowledge Internet access and affordability as issues in both rural and urban areas. Both advocate keeping the Internet open. Both want to strengthen the communications infrastructure in ways that foster democratic participation. McCain emphasizes protection for intellectual property, Obama stresses using tehnology “to solve our nation’s problems.”
Difference #1: Defining broadband
While he does not articulate a specific goal, Obama wants to amplify the current federal definition of broadband (200 kilobites per second). The current federal standard is far too limited now that people want to download TV shows and movies, and companies need to move huge data files from one place to another across the World Wide Web.
The problem is fairly simple to understand. Have you ever been in the shower when someone turns on the water somewhere else in the house? You get frozen or scalded and mad. The problem is that your water pipes are too small. So it goes with the World Wide Web. IT capacity in most urban areas across the country already far exceeds the federal standard; rural communities need larger information pipelines to handle information that connects them with other places.
McCain is silent on this issue.
Difference #2: “Net neutrality”
“Net neutrality” is a controversial phrase that speaks to several tenets of IT: No restrictions on the types of equipment that can be attached; Non-interference among different communications streams (remember the cold shower); No restrictions on the types of communications allowed; No restrictions on websites, content, or technological platforms.
Obama, on his website, acknowledges that many Americans face limited choices when it comes to Internet service providers. Thus he contends that some government regulation levels the playing field for small and large operations, promoting competition and innovation. He opposes Internet charges by providers that would favor some sites over others, saying this practice would lead to a “two-tiered net” with different levels of service. He advocates a regulatory framework to help smaller telecommunications companies, businesses, governments, and small-town consumers.
McCain’s position as outlined on his website expresses faith that an open marketplace can deter unfair practices, Though McCain suggests a policy focus that sounds a lot like net neutrality, he, unlike Obama, would not seek net neutrality legislation; Congress already has rejected such legislation at least once.
Difference #3: Regional Disparities
With an open-market orientation, McCain endorses several means to promote wireless technology in rural areas: tax incentives to encourage private investment, government-backed loans, low-interest bonds, and encouragement of research and development. McCain also recognizes that many states do not have adequate information about broadband infrastructure for communities; he proposes disseminating such information and giving firms incentives to build the necessary facilities.
Obama combines regulation with tax and loan incentives to shape markets to help rural areas. He proposes new standards for commercial spectrum to bring affordable broadband to rural areas. McCain believes that firms using the newly acquired spectrum will provide high-speed Internet service to rural areas; he does not propose legal standards.
McCain explicitly uses a term of left-leaning economists, “market failures,” to support the idea that local governments should be able to build their own infrastructure to provide Internet services. Internet services provided by local governments have run into opposition in some state legislatures because they are seen as competition by private providers. About six states have legislation that prohibits or severely limits municipal provision of broadband services.
Obama also supports community-based and municipal broadband efforts. Both candidates support public-private partnerships, but only Obama offers a specific funding mechanism to pay for his program. He suggests reforming the Universal Service Fund as a way to raise some of the capital necessary to extend broadband services across the country. Originally legislated during the Clinton Administration in 1996, the Universal Service Fund has played a role in providing affordable phone and Internet services in rural communities, especially for schools and libraries.
Difference #4: Taxes and Fees
Obama and McCain clearly define themselves on the issue of taxes and fees. As noted above, Obama favors changing the Universal Service Fund so that it can be applied to developing affordable broadband, especially in previously unserved communities. McCain does not mention the Universal Service Fund, instead promising to keep the Internet free of taxation. In fact, he lists a number of tax breaks and incentives for firms, including rewarding companies for offering high-speed internet service to low-income customers; speeding depreciation on new equipment; and lowering the corporate tax rate to retain technological investment. Both McCain and Obama agree on a permanent Research and Development tax credit. McCain specifies that it would equal 10 percent of the wages spent on research and development.
Difference #5: Emphasis and Administration
While McCain sees the Internet as a way to keep up with global competition and provide services and information to citizens, Obama emphasizes its importance for free speech and government transparency. Both candidates favor appointment of someone to oversee government technology planning and implementation: Obama promises a chief technology officer; McCain promises an office of electronic government.
Obama raises two other issues of importance to rural areas: making sure schools, libraries, hospitals and households have access to the next generation of broadband technology and using technology to lower health care costs by improving record keeping. McCain does not mention these issues.
Difference #5: Education, Workers and Worker Training
Both candidates agree on the need to strengthen education in high technology, including math and science education.
McCain offers three other ideas that could help rural areas: support for educational instruction for minorities and low-income students, help for community colleges to retrain displaced workers; and encouragement for telecommuting.
Obama’s ideas focus on developing pilot programs to help businesses increase their IT workforce in inner cities and rural communities; increasing technology literacy in schools; improving schools’ commitment to technology; and improving training within institutions that use broadband.
McCain recognizes technological workforce shortages, suggesting the need to expand the number of visas for foreign-born workers. He also believes in fair trade agreements to give American workers more opportunities to compete in global markets.
Obama’s and McCain’s IT policy priorities contain similarities and differences. Where they most differ is in their approach to the relationship between government and markets.
Obama finds the current government definition for Internet data-transmission speed is obsolete and wants to quicken Internet capacity with regulation and incentives. McCain may also recognize this problem, as he supports developing and adopting new technology. But McCain does not mention the need for a government standard; his open-market approach suggests that competition, with the proper incentives, will spur higher broadband speeds.
More important, however, is the candidates’ difference on net neutrality, which has become a polarizing issue in some circles. McCain seems to support net neutrality in theory, as a policy direction, but does not want the government to mandate it for fear regulations would stifle competition and innovation. McCain does believe the government has a clear role in reaching out to underserved areas and people; but, again, he does not want to require this outreach through laws and regulations; he prefers market solutions reinforced by an array of government financial incentives for businesses.
Obama, on the other hand, believes government has a role in guiding competition to keep the markets fair. He supports net neutrality, with an attendant set of regulations to assure that the Internet ““ in all of its aspects, from research and development to personal use ““ is set up so it is fair to everyone. Unlike McCain, he does not assume that the market automatically provides a level playing field for everyone and everyplace.
There is no question that both candidates see technology as an important part of their campaign platforms. Both candidates seem to want similar outcomes for IT, but their approaches are different. One prescription is legal; the other is market-driven. Obama believes the government’s role is to assure that the market functions smoothly with some level of regulation. McCain believes that consumers should have an open market with a variety of choices to achieve fairness.
Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University. Opinions or bias, if they have crept into this discussion, are his and his alone.