National CTO a Good Idea But Please God Not Schmidt

On our road forward technology has to be one of the most important cornerstones that we want to build any future society that for the first time could bring quality in participation of governing our country. The unfortunate part of this is that the US has been on a backslide for some time now to the point that it ranks 15th among all industrial nations for broadband penetration and it is still going down further. Already China is on the verge of surpassing the US; and just about all of the rest of the broadband countries combined, in people accessing the web at speeds on par or better than what we currently brag about.

Never before have we seen such a miss-mash of policies and directions on the road forward being dictated by corporations who actually control the very access to the Internet. Where once the US was the shining beacon of incredible innovations, unlimited access and capless downloading we are now seeing these corporate gatekeepers instituting data and speed caps with less money being spent on improving our Internet infrastructure than any other developed; and in some case underdeveloped, countries.

Into this confusing and corporate controlled Internet landscape Barack Obama is suggesting that if he is elected as the President of the United States one of the first things he will do is create a National Chief Technology Officer (CTO) that would be a cabinet level position and who would be there to advise the President on all things to do with technology. While McCain hasn’t jumped on board with the same idea the possibility of there being someone at the cabinet level who can influence the country’s technological future is making some people rather nervous.

Before going any further it is important that we understand exactly what a CTO is and what their typical duties are. Whether this would hold true given the influence such a person would have on a governmental level it is still important to have some background info. From the Wikipedia entry for Chief Technical Officer (CTO) we get the following explanation

A chief technical officer or chief technology officer (abbreviated as CTO) is an executive position whose holder is focused on scientific and technical issues within an organization. Often, the CTO will oversee technical staff at a company, particularly those building products or creating services that embody industry-specific technologies. In some cases the CTO will also oversee the work of the research and development organizations. There is currently no commonly shared definition of the CTO position or that person’s responsibilities. Young start-ups typically have a set of technically hands-on tasks for the CTO, while an international conglomerate may need the CTO to deal with the representatives of foreign governments and industry organizations

Again according to Wikipedia a CTO’s responsibilities are something like this

In practice, the CTO can have many more responsibilities than managing a portfolio of R&D or production projects. This person may report to the CEO and provide a technical voice in the strategic planning for a company. CTOs like Greg Papadopoulos at Sun Microsystems and Padmasree Warrior formerly at Motorola work closely with the CEO to help determine what types of products or services the company should focus on.

Now much of the talk currently about a National CTO is how that person would be tasked with developing a comprehensive plan for nationwide broadband access and if that is the case then I find myself much in agreement with Mark ‘Rizzn’ Hopkins. In a post today on Mashable Mark questioned the idea behind needing a national CTO

So how much, exactly, got collected into the Universal Service Fund, and what did we get for that? An excellent question; one that Jeff Pulver’s guest blogger Daniel Berninger asked in the summer of 2006. You can read the whole answer over there, but the short version is not much (single digit increases in basic service penetration, and overall double-digit per customer increases in consumer costs).

Bringing this back around to the whole CTO thing…

This is what we want a CTO for? So that he or she can empower the major telcos to take and squander more of our money? This is the definition of intelligent change and hope?

In effect we already have the pieces in place; and have had for years, needed to fund a broadband plan that could make the United States the envy of the world when it comes to ubiquitous broadband access. However no amount of cajoling or threatening by our current political machinery has made even a single telco to live up to the obligations that they were required to fulfill. To think that having a national CTO would make any difference in this one specific area is stupid and extremely shortsighted.

Now on the other hand if an Obama led White House is serious about changing the rules of the game and truly interested in moving the country forward by laying a good rock solid foundation for a complete technology policy then yes I believe that having a national CTO is a good idea. However, like all good ideas this one is fraught with problems with the most obvious being who would be the person to take up this position.

Already names are being floated around with names like Eric Schmidt (Google), Vint Cerf (Google), Steve Ballmer (Microsoft), Jeffret Bezos (Amazon) along with Ed Felton and Larry Lessig. With the exception of one of those names the very possibility of people like Schmidt, Ballmer or Bezos would be enough to kill the new CTO position before it even got off the ground. The fact is that anyone looking to fill this ultimate CTO position should not have any association whatsoever with any tech related company as it would immediately call into question any decisions they make.

The idea of a national CTO is a good one given that it isn’t just narrowly focused on enhancing telco profit margins by more boondoggle programs like the ones we have had in the past. Having soething like a national CTO executive could be a great thing as long as it was an all encompassing plan from the ground up with making easy and ubiquitous access for all people the cornerstone that the new infrastructure is built on.