E-Proposal for Small Business Called Too Little, Too Late

E-Proposal for Small Business Called Too Little, Too Late

Raymond Kammer

By Anne Gallagher, Contributing Writer

Officials from the Commerce Department are asking Congress to support a budget for the National Institute of Standards and Technology that includes a provision to help small businesses get more involved in e-commerce. But some lawmakers say they doubt the money will go far enough or arrive soon enough to make a difference.

The NIST budget request for fiscal 2001 includes $20 million in new funding for e-commerce initiatives. NIST is part of the Commerce Department's Technology Administration.

Included in that $20 million is $15 million to conduct e-commerce outreach by producing tool kits, training materials and other resources intended to assist small business manufacturers in the purchase of e-commerce products and services.

Another $4 million would be used to address manufacturing interoperability issues by conducting measurements and establishing standards to ensure accurate and efficient exchange of electronic data. The remaining $1 million would be directed to the area of wireless technologies to address measurement and standards to enable broad adoption of next-generation wireless communications supporting e-commerce. For example, part of that funding would center on interoperability and characterization of antennas and microcircuits to support wireless information technology systems.

Raymond Kammer, director of NIST, made his case for the budget initiatives at a March 9 hearing of the House Science Committee's subcommittee on technology

The subcommittee's ranking Democrat James Barcia of Michigan said he is doubtful the initiatives to assist small businesses will make much of an impact.

Kammer agreed that the proposals should have been made earlier, but said he believed they still will be helpful. "This is an urgent problem, and I wish we could go faster," Kammer testified.

A recent survey by the National Association of Manufacturers found that roughly 80 percent of manufacturers have Web sites, but only about 30 percent of small manufacturers actually use the Web for e-business transactions, Kammer said.

"Part of our initiative includes $8.8 million to hire approximately 200 information technology experts to be located in our field centers to provide
immediate hands-on help for small businesses seeking to adopt e-business practices," he said. "Field staff at the centers will assist small manufacturers in understanding, developing and implementing their e-business strategy."

Without support via government funding for these initiatives, businesses will continue to struggle as the new high-tech economy continues to grow, Kammer said. He noted that economists predict by 2003 about $3 trillion of the economy will be transacted over the Internet in business-to-business deals.

"Electronic data exchange among businesses is becoming more common, but the process remains far from smooth," he said. "Failures in interoperability cost at least $1 billion per year in the automotive supply chain alone. The more than 100 e-commerce-related standards currently under development threaten to further fragment the market with incompatible and competing standards."

Other IT-related portions of the overall Technology Administration fiscal 2001 budget request include efforts to better protect against cyberattack ? another area where many small- and midsized businesses are naive or do not see the benefit of putting protections in place, according to Kammer.

The budget request includes $50 million to create an Institute for Information Infrastructure Protection that will provide research and development grants to universities and the private sector in critical information protection areas of need. There is another $5 million in fundamental computer security research for advanced encryption standards and algorithms.

And yet another $5 million would establish a permanent expert review team designed to help agencies conduct vulnerability analyses and develop critical infrastructure protection plans.

Others members of Congress also have been stepping up efforts to curb future cybercrime and help small businesses deal with attacks. For example, Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., said March 9 that he plans to ask Attorney General Janet Reno to set up a toll-free number to provide a central contact point to law enforcement authorities responsible for computer crimes and computer-security related issues. A centralized phone number would make it easier for small businesses to report cybercrimes and to obtain guidance and assistance to combat it, he said.

Bond also intends to ask FBI Director Louis Freeh to ensure that the National Infrastructure Protection Center provides outreach to trade associations representing small business and to federally funded business development programs, such as Small Business Development Centers, Business Information Centers and the Service Corps of Retired Executives.

"Many of the country's largest businesses have been actively working to protect themselves from computer criminals and vandals whose actions can do costly damage to a business serving customers on the Internet," Bond said in a statement. "As government and big business set up new electronic walls and systems to protect themselves, small businesses very likely will become an even greater target."

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