State of the Union: Obama outlines United States of Technology

From high-speed broadband to Google to smart phones, the tech sector shined in Tuesday's State of the Union address. But how are these talking points translating to policy?

By , Staff writer

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    President Barack Obama delivers the State of Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, in Washington, as Vice President Joe Biden, and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, listen. Mr. Obama made tech a feature of his speech.
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There may not have been any tech representatives on FLOTUS’s coveted guest list at the State of the Union address Tuesday, but technology had the spotlight in President Obama’s speech.

“Today in America ... an entrepreneur flipped on the lights in her tech startup, and did her part to add to the more than 8 million new jobs our businesses have created over the past four years," said Mr. Obama.

And that was just the second sentence.

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Innovation has always been a major talking point in the annual SOTU speech, but last night Obama wove technology into several of the overarching themes of his message: employment, education, and the global economy. But whether these mentions were just talking points in a speech or grounds for actual change remain on a case-by-case basis.

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education has been the battle cry of education-oriented politicians as of late, but in the SOTU, Obama touched on a different aspect of education: wireless access.

“Tonight, I can announce that with the support of the [Federal Communications Commission] and companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon, we’ve got a down payment to start connecting more than 15,000 schools and 20 million students over the next two years, without adding a dime to the deficit,” he said.

Last year, Obama pledged to get 99 percent of students access to high-speed Internet in schools, and it turns out this is one promise he can make without congressional support. The FCC already pays for Internet access at schools through a program called “E-Rate”, and FCC chairman Tom Wheeler says in a statement that the FCC will apply “business-like management practices” to make the funds go farther this year.

“In the Internet age, every student in America should have access to state-of-the-art educational tools, which are increasingly interactive, individualized, and bandwidth-intensive,” Mr. Wheeler says.

However, there were no further details released on partnerships with tech companies. The White House says it will release more information about the role of these companies in coming weeks.

The president urged that better preparing students would also lead to more qualified employees for growing sectors, such as high-tech manufacturing. Obama pointed out that his administration has opened two high-tech manufacturing hubs, one in Raleigh, N.C., and one in Youngstown, Ohio, and will be opening six more in the coming year. He said encouraging innovation is key to keeping America on par with growing innovation sectors overseas.

“China and Europe aren’t standing on the sidelines, and neither should we,” he said. “We know that the nation that goes all-in on innovation today will own the global economy tomorrow. This is an edge America cannot surrender. Federally funded research helped lead to the ideas and inventions behind Google and smart phones.”

Though it seems that Google, Apple, Microsoft, Verizon, and the other tech companies named in the SOTU were generally lauded, Obama wasn’t entirely keen on the tech industry. Specifically, he called out tech companies for perpetuating patent wars, and Congress for letting it continue.

“Let’s pass a patent reform bill that allows our businesses to stay focused on innovation, not costly and needless litigation,” he said.

Last year, the House passed legislation battling “patent trolls,” which are companies that buy patents and sue for infringements. This became a particularly salient issue when Canadian telecom company Nortel Networks went bankrupt in 2012, and 4,000 of its patents were bought by a consortium of tech companies called Rockstar that included Microsoft and Apple. Since the sale, the tech world has become increasingly mired in patent lawsuits. The Senate has yet to take action on this legislation.

Though he did not make an explicit connection to the tech world, much of Obama’s speech discussed income inequality, an issue that has flared up in San Francisco with the influx of high-paid tech workers in formerly working-class neighborhoods. Amidst protests over Google's shuttle buses trucking workers to Silicon Valley (and therefore congesting local streets and taking money away from public transportation) and concern over rising rents due to high-paid workers, venture capitalist Tom Perkins recently penned an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal comparing protests against wealthy Silicon Valley elite to Nazis persecuting Jews. It was greeted with general ire from the tech world, but highlighted the tension and disconnect faced by those working in and around this sector.

To address inequality, Obama announced a federal order mandating that the minimum wage for workers on new federal projects be brought up to $10.10.

"Average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled," Obama said. "The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead. And too many still aren't working at all."

There was one particularly glaring tech omission however: Obama spent little time discussing NSA surveillance, notably only a day after the federal government relaxed the gag order on tech companies, allowing them to disclose more information about government requests. 

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