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On the House Floor: iPads, Yes, Wi-Fi, Not so Much

BY Nick Judd | Friday, January 7 2011

The U.S. Capitol Building. Photo: Wikimedia

As the 112th U.S. Congress convenes, with, for the first time, rules set for approval that will make more room for iPads and mobile devices in the House, there's a question that members are likely to ask one another repeatedly in the coming weeks:

What's the wi-fi password?

There's one problem with trying to use wi-fi on the floor of the House. While the Capitol complex itself has 145 wireless hotspots, according to a spokeswoman for the Committee on House Administration, there currently aren't any on the floor.

"Right now, no, there is not a dedicated system for the floor specifically," the spokeswoman, Salley Wood, told me by phone earlier today.

However, she said, reception could very well bleed over from other areas of the Capitol complex.

The House Chief Administrative Officer, responsible for a variety of support services to representatives in Congress, is working on a plan to bring antennas to the floor itself, Wood told me — but it's not certain yet if House leadership will implement the plan CAO delivers to them.

As far as email and Twitter are concerned, that's not a terribly large obstacle. BlackBerrys and iPads can also get serviceable Internet access through 3G connections, although separate contracts for each member's data service might be a niggling issue for a leadership professing fiscal austerity.

And the potential offered by having members of Congress connected while on the floor is a little greater than that. Federal legislators are famously short on time to do things like, say, read bills. God forbid some of them are able to do some fact-checking of their own during a debate on the House floor, so long as it doesn't impair decorum. With the House apparently taking an interest in providing more live streams of its proceedings, there's also potential to have members of Congress interacting more with constituents or advisers while on the floor — imagine that.

It's unclear to me — and, apparently, to the Committee on House Administration, too — if hotspots near the House floor are enough to support 435 representatives there making occasional use of tools like OpenCongress, or Thomas, or, dare I suggest, techPresident. This Congress is already the most digitally inclined in history, with swearing-in ceremonies streamed live on Facebook and House Speaker John Boehner counting a hat-tip to open-government pioneer Carl Malamud among his first official actions. Most of this blog's audience is probably familiar with the truth that packing more than a few dozen heavy Internet users into a room and asking them to use the same wi-fi access point is a recipe for trouble, or, at least, lag.

Of course, given that C-SPAN still can't show the audience in that chamber as members speak before their colleagues (or before empty seats) in the House, it's still unclear if that will ever truly be a problem.