Tech entities respond to their rising stake in policy debate

In February, Google said it planned to test high-speed Internet access in selected US regions to illustrate the effects of a faster national broadband network.

In February, Google said it planned to test high-speed Internet access in selected US regions to illustrate the effects of a faster national broadband network.

The announcement, which was met with support from cities like Greensboro, NC, and Topeka, KS, was made about a month before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released its national broadband plan.

While many of the policy issues facing the technology industry are disparate, broadband remains a central topic for the sector as a whole.

The broadband plan, which is supported by stimulus funds, illustrates a major federal issue that will affect tech companies of all sizes. It also represents the industry's growing involvement in the Washington discourse.

Feeling the pressure
"There's more of a sense of urgency right now than there was a year ago," explains Nicole Silverman, director at Qorvis Communications. "Things are happening and policies are being set that are going to impact the industry for years to come."

The Obama administration's stimulus package in 2009 included funding for health information technology, energy and smart grid technology, and broadband technology, fueling the industry's reputation as an economic driver in the US.

"You have a lot of industries that represent failure in Washington," says Tom Galvin, partner at 463 Communications. "The opportunity for technology has essentially been to be the industry that is part of the solution. Technology has largely been viewed as a means to some of the solutions for the challenges."

Fred Humphries, MD of US government affairs for Microsoft, says the company is focused on four issues in 2010 - the economy and jobs, cloud computing, workforce training, and immigration reform.

"I always try to have three or four priorities," he notes. "But it seems this year we have more than three or four. I could put broadband in there. I could put health IT in there. There are a lot of things taking place."

As tech companies evaluate what leadership role they should take in policy debates, many are turning to innovative PR tactics and applying them to the issues.

Qorvis is working with the Open Internet Coalition, which is made up of nearly 100 tech companies and advocacy organizations. The firm launched a guerrilla marketing campaign for the coalition at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, says Silverman.

"People are really clamoring to build their brands, to talk about the issues," she adds.

The firm built QR codes, which are similar to bar codes, for stickers, buttons, and social networking sites. If users downloaded an application and photographed the codes with a camera phone, they were directed to the coalition's Web site and could e-mail their support to the FCC.

"The purpose," says Silverman, "was to show such a widespread appeal for net neutrality."

Corporate channels

Both Microsoft and AT&T are using blogs to tell their policy stories. While Microsoft introduced "Microsoft on the Issues" in January 2009, AT&T launched its "Public Policy Blog" in late 2009.

It also relaunched the Web site in the first quarter of 2010 for AT&T Labs Research, the company's R&D arm, to better show the process to innovation, says Margaret Boles, media relations director for AT&T in Washington, by e-mail.

"As the economy has deteriorated, I think they're becoming more aware that the government has an important role in their lives," says Bret Wacker, MD of public affairs for Airfoil PR. "Technology companies are starting to realize that more than they ever have."

Microsoft scheduled its US Imagine Cup, a student technology competition, and its Worldwide Partner Conference, an annual forum for Microsoft employees, executives, and partners, in Washington for the first time this year, says Humphries.

"It's a great opportunity to display here in DC some of the innovation that's taking place with our partners," he adds. "It will be good for members and staff to see that and meet the different people from more than just here in the US."

Gaining relevance Broadband

The US plans to allot $7.2 billion to a national broadband program, which could impact tech sectors ranging from wireless carriers to infrastructure providers

Cloud computing

The message of innovation will be crucial for companies as they communicate their plans to address privacy issues and consumer protection

Health IT

The Obama administration has emphasized the need for health IT, yet concerns have been raised about the protection of healthcare data and meaningful use of electronic medical records

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