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From the “couldn’t have said it much better” file…

Last week ALA Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) intern Lauren Vilbert and I attended the National Journal Policy Briefing: Technology 2012 and Beyond featuring two panels of telecommunications and technology experts discussing issues ranging from broadband and innovation policy to privacy and data security to spectrum allocation. The policy summit was placed within the context of the 2012 elections, including advice to presidential hopefuls and future FCC chairpersons. While telecom was expected to be a “backburner” issue in the presidential primaries, there certainly was much to discuss, including recent activity on network neutrality and Universal Service Fund reform.

A personal favorite among the panelists (more on them later) was Larry Irving, past Administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and widely credited with coining the term “the digital divide.” I couldn’t have asked for much more in his response to my question about the current state of the digital divide and the roles libraries can and should play:

Libraries have done an amazing job. And, as you know, we had a process — we were going to get every school, every library, [thanks to the E-rate!] and every health clinic connected.

When I go back home, most kids today have devices. We want to reach kids where they are, instead of where you want them to be. We need to find more compelling ways to use those devices. I’ve worked with the [Bill & Melinda] Gates Foundation and the American Library Association for years rethinking how libraries could and should be connected.

One of the great tragedies in this country is as we’ve seen declines in state and local revenue, one of the first places they cut is libraries. This is horrific[…]. Libraries have taught people the skills to drive on the Information Superhighway.

I recently posted on Facebook about a quote from Abraham Lincoln that one of the bad things about the Internet is that it’s hard to tell what are accurate quotes. That’s clearly not a Lincoln quote, but that’s the point. There’s still a need to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Libraries can help people separate what’s good information, what’s bad information and how to use trusted resources.

There’s a crucial need for what you [libraries] are doing. There’s a crucial need for funding of libraries, and a crucial need for funding Internet access for libraries to provide wifi and other critical resources.

So…you can see why he was a personal favorite.

But there was a lot to like and learn over the course of the morning. Opening speakers were Congressman Lee Terry, Vice Chair, Subcommittee on Communications and Technology for the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, and former Congressman Rick Boucher, the 2006 Library Journal Politician of the Year. They disagreed on network neutrality, but found common ground in foreseeing a need for Congress to draft new telecom legislation that would recognize convergences in voice, data and video. Both agreed the 1996 Telecommunications Act was created in an analog and siloed world that separated the FCC’s work into the wireline, wireless and media bureaus. They argued we now live in a vastly different digital era that demands a more harmonized regulatory approach (rather than different regulations for different communications technologies). Boucher also emphasized the need for improving digital privacy rights and data security, recommending national security standards based on federal adoption of strong state-level laws (such as in California). Reallocation of spectrum and incentive auctions also was forecast as a major area of focus for the coming year.

Many of these threads were continued during a second panel with Antoinette C. Bush, Ambassador David A. Gross, Larry Irving, and Bruce P. Mehlman. Additionally, Gross forecasts that 2012 will be a “seminal” year for international telecommunications, starting with the World Radio Conference in Geneva in January, and ending with the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications next December, which poses a “direct threat to the Internet” as the body considers revisions to the International Telecommunication Regulations. All of the panelists agreed that the United States cannot look at telecommunications issues only through a national lens. Decisions made in this country about privacy and data security, for instance, have international implications and repercussions.

Panelists offered the following advice for a 2012 president:

  • Use the bully pulpit. The country needs a compelling narrative and holistic approach to tackling technology and telecommunications issues.
  • Focus on jobs, the economy and foreign policy. Telecommunications is not rising to the level of presidential politics this year, according to Bush.
  • Focus on global competitiveness, which implicates education, infrastructure and immigration policy.
  • Think globally.

and any future FCC chairperson:

  • Carry out Congressional will, be transparent and talk/listen to Congress. While there was appreciation for Chairman Julius Genachowski taking on Universal Service Fund reform, there was frustration that the Connect America Fund Order was still not available for reading at the time of the panel.

Overall, it was two hours well spent as we speed toward 2012. If you’d like to experience it for yourself, the archived video is available at the National Journal website.

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Larra Clark

Larra Clark is the deputy director of both the Public Library Association and Washington Office’s public policy team. Larra received her bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Arizona and has a M.S. in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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