Obama Talks Lots of WiFi, Little Spying, in State of the Union

Innovation got bigger billing than privacy battles Tuesday.

A portrait of Edward Snowden declaring him a 'hero' is seen during a protest against government surveillance on October 26, 2013 in Washington, DC. The disclosures of widespread surveillance by the US National Security Agency of US allies has caused an international uproar, with leaders in Europe and Latin America demanding an accounting from the United States. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images) (National Journal)

Americans excited about high-tech schools got a shout-out in President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday. Those enraged about the National Security Agency's surveillance practices were left with less.

Obama announced a step forward in his proposal to improve Internet access in schools on Tuesday: Actions by the Federal Communications Commission and tech companies — including Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon — will bring high-speed broadband Internet to more than 15,000 schools and 20 million students over the next two years, Obama said.

The issue is one of the few domestic initiatives that Obama can achieve without congressional support. The FCC already pays for Internet access in schools and libraries through a program called "E-Rate" that is funded by fees on monthly phone bills. Last year, Obama called on the agency to dramatically expand the program to provide high-speed Internet to 99 percent of all students. The agency is still conducting a regulatory review of whether to expand E-Rate, but FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said Tuesday he will use "business-like management practices" to make the existing funds go farther this year. The White House said it will have more details about the philanthropic commitments from the tech companies in the coming weeks.

Another major tech issue that Obama highlighted in the speech was patent reform, urging Congress to pass legislation that allows "our businesses to stay focused on innovation, not costly, needless litigation." The House passed legislation last year aimed at combatting "patent trolls" — firms that use bogus patent infringement claims to extort settlements out of businesses — but the Senate has yet to act.

But one issue that was notable for its almost complete absence in the speech was the controversy over NSA surveillance. After a year of leaks by former federal contractor Edward Snowden, the agency's programs have become both controversial and an ongoing political hassle for the administration.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4690) }}

Obama laid out his views for reforming the agency in a speech earlier this month, and — though his address Tuesday did make brief mention of working with Congress on surveillance reform — he otherwise showed little interest in revisiting the issue.