Senate Bill Would Guarantee Next Generation Internet Funding For Two Years

After Congress balked at fully funding President Clinton's $105 million request for the Next Generation Internet program for fiscal 1998, a new Senate bill would guarantee funding for the next two fiscal years. The bill would nearly meet the full amount the administration has been seeking to develop the network, which would operate at speeds up to 1,000 times faster than today's Internet.

The Next Generation Internet Research Act of 1998, introduced earlier this month, calls for $102.5 million in fiscal 1999 for six federal agencies and $115 million for the agencies in fiscal 2000. It is the first piece of legislation that targets funding for the NGI program separately; so far, funding for the various agencies involved in the program has been embedded in those agencies' individual budgets.

After some lawmakers complained that the program lacked focus and would neglect research universities in rural states when doling out funds, Congress allocated only $85 million of the $105 million requested for fiscal 1998. The bill, which would amend the High-Performance Computing Act of 1991 to authorize the appropriations, taps a presidential computing advisory committee formed last year to ensure that the role of each agency's NGI work is clear and does not duplicate other efforts in the federal government. The legislation also calls for the committee to address concerns relating to geographic penalties — or disproportionately greater costs for Internet users in rural areas because of increased distances from the network.

Sens. Bill Frist (D-Tenn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced the bill, which has been referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. "This legislation funds the agencies that are involved in creating advanced computer networking technology that will make tomorrow's Internet faster, more versatile, more affordable and more accessible than today," Frist said. "Researchers from select states enjoy access to high-bandwidth Internet connections at costs that are sometimes one-eighth the rate of their rural colleagues. This legislation acknowledges this geographical penalty."

The current Internet, said bill co-sponsor Sen. John Rockefeller (D-N.Y.), is an example of what the government can do right with a modest investment in technology. "When the Internet was started, it was a government-funded network for researchers and military personnel," Rockefeller said. "It was expected to grow, but not into the commercially supported network with a $250 billion market base that it is today. This rate of returnis something any investment banker would love to achieve." However, he added that today's Internet has become overcrowded, and the congestion risks the development of future advanced applications, such as distance-learning and telemedicine, without investment into the NGI.

A spokesman for Frist said last week that the legislation has bipartisan support and that separate legislation was necessary to give "focus and direction" to the NGI project. No hearings have been scheduled for the bill. Although the legislation and the Clinton administration's proposal for the NGI are nearly identical, the new bill would fund the Energy Department and NASA at $5 million each less for NGI work than the president's plan calls for.

Tom Kalil, senior director of the National Economic Council and the administration's point man for the program, said he thought the funding differences could be ironed out.

"We're delighted to see such strong bipartisan support," Kalil said. "It raises the level of awareness and support for the initiative overall for the Hill."

In addition to NASA and DOE, the Defense Department, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Standards and Technology would all receive NGI funding under the new bill. Additional co-sponsors of the bill include Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mon.).

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