Obama Looks to Give Digital Economy Shot in the Arm

Pledging to "renew our information superhighway," President-elect Barack Obama this month offered a broad outline of an economic stimulus plan that will likely include increased spending on broadband access and other IT initiatives.

The stimulus plan, which Obama detailed in bare-bones fashion during his weekly video address on Dec. 6, could lead to wider availability of broadband services, particularly in rural areas. It also may fund new computers for schools and technologies that can help reduce medical costs.

The plan's overall cost is expected to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars, so the amount of money that will be made available for IT-related investments could be quite large.

James Gabberty, a professor at Pace University's Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems in New York, said it's hard to measure the impact of tech spending on productivity. There's no way to quantify, for instance, that "the growth of a nation's goods and services will be x if you spend y number of dollars on hardware, software and communications gear," he said.

But Robert Atkinson, who heads the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, thinks tech investments will help stimulate the economy. While many traditional economists focus on projects such as building roads and bridges, "we need to expand our vision" to include IT, said Atkinson, who is working with federal agencies as a member of Obama's transition team.

In a paper published in October, the ITIF argued that IT investments produce outsized productivity gains. And in discussing a possible stimulus plan, the nonpartisan think thank said that the U.S. can't afford to focus only on a "consumption-based [effort] that leaves the nation with little to show after consumers spend the money and the economy gets back on track."

One step that the ITIF recommended to spur corporate technology buying is to allow companies to write off all such purchases for tax purposes during 2009.

Broadband expansion is likely to be a priority for Obama's administration. Although the U.S. currently has about 75 million broadband users, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ranks it only 15th out of 30 industrialized countries on broadband adoption. In his speech, Obama called the level of access in the U.S. "unacceptable."

Even now, only about two-thirds of Americans have a computer at home, according to the ITIF. Atkinson said the federal government could increase PC ownership through a program that subsidizes the cost of computers and Internet access. For less than $1 billion, the U.S. could help about 1.5 million households get online, he claimed.

Obama also said he wants to ensure that every hospital and doctor in the U.S. "is using cutting-edge technology and electronic medical records, so that we can cut red tape, prevent medical mistakes and help save billions of dollars each year."

The Arizona Telemedicine Program is employing technology to do just that. For instance, the program, which is funded by the state government and based at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson, created a teletrauma service that enables trauma specialists to assist medical facilities in remote areas. Using cameras, videoconferencing equipment and remote sensors, the specialists can examine a patient's injuries and view X-rays.

Dr. Ronald Weinstein, the program's director, said the telemedicine initiative has helped save lives and reduce costs -- in some cases by eliminating the need to fly patients to hospitals for specialized treatment.

Weinstein said he hopes Obama will continue to fund a telemonitoring program at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. As part of that program, cell phones are used to prompt patients to take medications or to deliver messages related to their individual medical needs. Cell phones, Weinstein said, are becoming "central to the delivery" of health care services.

This version of this article originally appeared in Computerworld 's print edition.

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