Senators turn to electronic assistants

Senators, who typically turn to aides bearing briefing books and position

papers when they need key facts during hearings and meetings, likely will

rely increasingly on electronic assistants during the upcoming 107th Congress.

The Senate Republican Conference is providing the 50 Republican senators

with wireless intranet service that will make issue briefings, daily schedules,

instructions from the Senate leadership and other information available

at the press of a button on a handheld computer or even a cellular phone.

Instead of hauling around three-ring binders bulging with information — or handing them to an aide to carry — senators will be able to access

information via a personal digital assistant (PDA), said Tim Petty, director

of information resources for the Technology Department of the Senate Republican

Conference.

It will be "quick and simple" to log in to a Republican intranet and

download information from about three dozen databases that are being set

up. The databases will hold information arranged by topic, such as trade

policy with China, environmental issues or foreign affairs, Petty said.

To make it even simpler, senators will be able to specify the kind of

information they want and it will automatically be sent to them. The system

will automatically pump out information based on senators' committee assignments,

constituent interests and personal preferences, Petty said.

"Once it's set up, the information will come to you. All you will have

to do is push the right button," he said.

Initially, senators and their aides will have to connect to the system

through desktop computers, he said. But the system is expected to go wireless

quickly. Then briefing papers, speeches, daily schedules and announcements

will be accessible from anywhere.

Anywhere, that is, except the Senate floor, where rules based on centuries

of tradition ban the presence of computers and cell phones. However, there

are no prohibitions against using wireless devices in hearing rooms or elsewhere

in the Capitol complex.

The Republicans' service is being set up by AvantGo Inc., a California-based

company that produces software designed to deliver Web-based content via

networks to handheld computers and Internet-enabled phones. AvantGo usually

works with companies that want to deliver business information to their

mobile employees, customers, suppliers or partners.

How will the tradition-encrusted Senate take to this new technology?

"Individually, a lot of senators and staffers are already using PDAs and

wireless devices," Petty said.

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