Lawmakers want to expand cell usage

Washington-area Metro riders became much more connected in October when AT&T, Sprint-Nextel and T-Mobile joined Verizon Wireless in providing wireless service in the busiest underground stations and platforms.

Now Reps. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) and John Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.) want to extend that model to other subway systems that aren’t yet wired for cell phone services. The effort has garnered the support of CTIA, the wireless industry’s main lobbying group, and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), both of which have been urging Congress to add provisions to the Surface Transportation Act of 2009 under consideration by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

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Subway systems in San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and New York have allowed wireless companies to equip at least some stations with cell phone networks. But in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Atlanta, subway riders are largely cut off from their BlackBerrys while waiting for trains.

The NENA says that’s a public safety hazard.

“During an emergency, wireless users are often the first ‘eyes and ears’ at the incident, providing critical information for first responders,” NENA CEO Brian Fontes wrote in a letter to House Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) and ranking member John Mica (R-Fla.).

“Almost 300,000 wireless 911 calls are connected each day, and that number continues to grow,” Fontes said.

Fontes and Steve Largent, CEO of CTIA, want Oberstar and Mica to insert provisions that were included in last year’s Rail Safety Improvement Act, which was spearheaded by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and required the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority to give wireless companies access to the Metro system to build networks.

Edwards and Duncan also have support from colleagues, including Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.), Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio).

Giving wireless companies access to tunnels and platforms can also benefit public transportation systems, which are often strapped for cash and reliant on public funding, said Jot Carpenter, CTIA vice president for government affairs.

“As it turns out, it’s a very good thing for subway providers,” he said. “The carriers pay them rent and can build in excess capacity … subway employees can use.”


High-skilled immigration to be addressed in Schumer-Graham bill

A report released this week by the Center for American Progress (CAP) includes recommendations that could serve as a blueprint of sorts for a broad immigration reform bill being crafted by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary’s Immigration subcommittee, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

An overhaul of the U.S. immigration laws has for years been a high priority for technology companies that say they need more H-1B visas and green cards to hire high-skilled workers and keep the industry competitive on a global scale. Microsoft founder Bill Gates and others make yearly pilgrimages to Washington to make their cases for lifting the visa caps. The topic came up at least a dozen times in last week’s job summit at the White House.

The CEOs of companies including Intel, HP, Dell and Cisco sent a letter to President Barack Obama last week listing highly skilled workers as a key to creating jobs.

“We should do everything possible to retain highly educated foreign professionals already in this country whose companies want them to stay, and those individuals seeking advanced degrees at our college and universities,” they said in the letter.

Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have gotten behind Schumer, who listed high-skilled immigration as one of seven pillars he would incorporate into his overhaul. A Schumer-Graham bill is expected to be introduced in February.

CAP, the think tank led by John Podesta, is the primary outside group working with the White House and Senate members on the issue.

High-skilled workers will only be part of the debate, which will also include illegal immigration, a biometric-based employer verification system and a proposal to create a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.

CAP will also be working with a number of industries — technology, agriculture and healthcare among them — and minority and community groups that all have different concerns and priorities when it comes to immigration.

To address the H-1B visa problem, for example, CAP recommends the government establish a market-based system that allows the supply of visas to grow and shrink to reflect the demand for workers. In its report, CAP said only around 261,000 of the 1.9 million visas issued in 2008 went to high-skilled professionals.

“It’s about job creation,” said Ralph Hellmann, senior vice president of the Information Technology Industry Council. “High-skilled people come here and create businesses.”

He pointed out that some of the biggest technology success stories — Intel, Google, eBay and Yahoo — were founded by people born outside the United States.

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