The Net Effect on Politics

SAN MATEO (08/04/2000) - The Republican National Convention this week stood as a proving ground of sorts for technology and the Internet, which have moved from being a novelty in the 1996 race to becoming a critical tool in the 2000 elections.

Since the last general election, more voters have moved online and toward broadband hookups, a fact that has led to a fundamental change in the way campaigns are run. Likewise, technology is affecting the way politics is covered by the media and perceived by the public.

"There were a lot of people talking about the intersection between democracy and the Internet," said Alex Sheshunoff, president of the New York-based Web site E-thepeople.com. "There were not a lot of people writing the code to make that happen. We and others sat down and talked about how to do that."

The mere existence of Sheshun-off's grass roots political site -- which bills itself as a "virtual town hall" where users can sign petitions, contact elected officials, and discuss issues -- points to the degree to which Internet technology has entwined itself with the needs of users, and vice versa.

To keep its users happy, E-thepeople.com has had to beef up its political content. The site offered ongoing coverage of the GOP convention and plans to do the same for the Democratic gathering next week, while continuing to feed its site with real-time information right through the Nov. 7 election.

This kind of demand for quick information from new-media sources has, for many vendors, helped fuel a new market developing around the political process.

For instance, new-media giant MSNBC started using a thin-client computing infrastructure from San Jose, Calif.-based Wyse Technology Inc. to cut down on the number of technology support staff the news organization needed to deploy to this week's convention.

"A couple of months back, we had planned to send 45 laptops to the GOP convention. To do that I would have sent four people to maintain them. This way we only sent one," said Jonathan Chow, IT director at MSNBC.

MSNBC, based in New York, also armed its Internet reporters with wireless e-mail units from Blackberry. Using this technology, correspondents walked the convention floor, posing questions submitted by MSNBC's Internet audience.

Meanwhile, a group called the Commission on Presidential Debates has wrapped in the efforts of vendors AT&T Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., 3Com Corp., and Harris Interactive Inc. to invite all Internet users to send in topics for the upcoming candidates' debates.

This kind of interaction is not limited to the conventions.

According to a study by E-advocates and Juno Online Services Inc., almost half of all voters intend to use the Internet to help make their choice this November. And public awareness sites such as E-thepeople.com and Grassroots.com will continue to add users and services.

In further evidence of new media's influence, a majority (about 64 percent) of people using the Internet to solidify voting decisions said they would trust information they obtained over the Internet more than information they received from television.

Washington-based E-advocates' research also indicates that citizens want to use the Internet to contact their elected representatives, government officials, and agencies. "With someone like CNN, either their online site or on TV, there's a certain credibility there," said Pam Fielding, a director at E-advocates. "But the Internet does level that playing field."

The rise of the new media began in the 1996 election when vendors such as Web-hosting service supplier Exodus Communications Inc. were rushed by MSNBC and others.

In the 2000 election, it is the politicians and their staffs who have ramped up their use of the Web, said officials at Santa Clara, Calif.-based Exodus.

Exodus this year is hosting the official Web sites of both 2000 presidential contenders.

"We are beginning to see more and more Internet appliances at use in the homes and elsewhere. It is only natural that technology is going to creep in to the political space as well," said Chris Richter, director of product marketing at Exodus.

And technology's impact on politics won't likely stop at the election. The public will clamor increasingly for more government online services. And the industry will watch, with a wary eye, the federal government's hand in regulating the Internet, Fielding said.

"There is a growing online democracy, and in the bigger scope of things everybody is watching with bated breath things that happen with the government that could affect improved services online," Fielding said.

Wiring the election

Technology makes its mark on the conventions, candidates' debates, and the general election with rapid ramp-up of broadband and Internet communication.

* Webcasting and video transmission over data lines pushes the limits of advanced networks* Convention news rushes forth in real time from specialized intranets built for the media* Internet infrastructure companies help political groups brace for a slew of online hits from now until NovemberVerizon gets convention callPropping up the pomp and circumstance at this week's Republican convention in Philadelphia was an advanced networking infrastructure that may signal the dawn of politics in the era of broadband and Internet communications.

At the GOP fest, news providers shared the stage with newsmakers, and the political event will perhaps go down in history as one of the first to be covered so heavily by the new Internet media.

The bandwidth needed by political operatives and more than 15,000 journalists at the convention was staggering, according to officials at New York-based Verizon Corp., the combination of former local phone giants Bell Atlantic Corp. and GTE Corp.

Verizon was tapped to provide data services to the convention. "We've had to provide data services to the equivalent of a small city in just 45 days," said Frank Punzo, sales manager for enterprise business at Verizon.

It was a job that Verizon as Bell Atlantic had done in conventions past. But never has the demand for high-speed data been greater, Punzo said.

The company claims it has set up the equivalent of about 139,000 voice lines after incorporating more private data lines and DSL circuits than ever before.

Along with partners AT&T and Lucent Technologies Inc., which provided long-distance transport and telephony equipment, respectively, Verizon also set up a service for journalists called Media2K. Verizon pitched the temporary intranet as a means for on-site journalists to get instant access to necessary press releases and speeches.

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