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Access to Net can spark economy

Cannon, others look at ways to cross digital divide

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High-speed Internet access is the "spark plug" that can energize the "new economy." But lack of it is one of the barriers responsible for the so-called digital divide.

The importance of widely available, high-capacity bandwidth was one topic on the table in Salt Lake City Thursday morning during a discussion featuring Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, and his friend and colleague, Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Ill.

Weller sits on the House Ways and Means Committee and chairs a partisan group concerned with growth in the Internet, telecommunications and general technology industries, which they see as integral to the "new" economy.

The congressmen met with state legislators and local business people for a 90-minute breakfast discussion that ranged from Internet access to property depreciation, free trade and tax policy, including Internet taxation.

Cannon said access to broadband is "the single most important issue before us" and noted that it's needed to create a "booming economy." But he said companies like the "regional Bells" have been "recalcitrant."

You don't have to live in Silicon Valley or Redmond, Wash., to be impacted by technology, Weller said. It is America's biggest export, accounting for $182 billion and 26 percent of gross total exports.

And the reason technology has grown so fast, Weller said, is simple: "Government stayed out of the way. We have more technology workers than in the auto, steel and petrochemical industries combined. As we look at the challenges, I hope we keep in mind that it has grown because government stayed out of the way."

One of those challenges, Weller and Cannon agreed, is a shortage of skilled technology workers, with experts predicting that as many as 400,000 information-technology jobs will go unfilled nationwide.

Depreciation is another challenge. Technology changes rapidly, and current tax laws say certain items, like computers, can be depreciated over five years, though they may actually have been scrapped and new ones purchased two years ago. Weller called it a "competitiveness issue" and said such items should be fully deductible.

Trade is the third item on his short list of challenges. He said the president needs the authority to fast-track trade agreements, meaning Congress could vote one up or down but wouldn't be able to "nickel and dime it."

International trade is important to technology companies. One member of the audience lamented that U.S. technology companies are forced into the difficult position of competing with foreign companies that have been subsidized by their governments.

"We've been aggressive in raising those issues," Weller said, "putting pressure on foreign competitors to remove the state's involvement."

E-MAIL: lois@desnews.com