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Black Friday's Mobile Milestone

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Last Friday ushered in the holiday shopping season, and while consumers were clamoring for the best bargain, this year they had a new tool in their artillery - their cell phone.

With an array of smartphone choices from the Palm Pre to the iPhone, several new Blackberry models, and the Droid - never before have Americans had so many options at their disposal. That's not to mention the proliferation of retail m-commerce sites, and applications that can help you navigate stores, compare prices and even send coupons straight to your mobile phone. For customers, cell phones have become the ultimate aid in savvy shopping.

The Wall Street Journal reported that on Black Friday, "mobile online payments through PayPal surged 650%" and mobile searches grew to 200,000 from around 5,000 in 2008. This is good news for retailers, but more importantly it signals that 2009 is likely to be seen as a tipping point for the mobile web.

Today, nearly 40 percent of new phone sales are smartphones, a figure that will surely rise with the current holiday promotions. And a recent report projects that by 2011 a majority of phones in the U.S. will be connected smartphones that put PC-like functionalities in the palm of your hand.

What's driving this growth is a fundamental shift in how we use our wireless devices.
According to a recent survey of nearly 1,000 phone users:

"[S]martphone users are no longer just reading e-mail or scheduling appointments but also surfing the Web, streaming video and music, downloading games, and snapping pictures. Smartphones are now seen more by consumers as minicomputers than as cell phones."

This is a giant step forward for U.S. connectivity and greatly beneficial to American consumers, but it also raises key questions for federal policymakers.

With the surge in smartphone adoption and mobile web usage, wireless data traffic in North America is expected to double every year between 2008 and 2013. If this forecast holds true, it means that we are facing what FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski calls a 'looming spectrum crisis.' The FCC needs to take action by opening up new wireless spectrum. Thankfully, Chairman Genachowski recognizes this challenge and is taking steps to address it.

However, as we witnessed with the last auctions, the path to spectrum allocation can be a lengthy and bureaucratic process, and consumers also need more immediate solutions. Wireless network management helps ensure as seamless a consumer experience as possible, no matter how busy the wireless networks become. As we seek solutions to address exponentially increasing mobile usage, we should keep in mind the constructive policies and engineering practices that made this growth possible in the first place.

As evidenced this Black Friday, wireless innovation is working for America. When considering policy changes, the FCC must first do no harm. Government policies should support mobile's still-nascent potential and growth, but consumer choices and mobile innovation should guide wireless' bright future.

Jonathan Spalter, chairman of Mobile Future, has been founding CEO of leading technology, media, and research companies, including Public Insight, Snocap, and Atmedica Worldwide. He served as an advisor to and spokesperson for Vice President Al Gore during the Clinton administration. www.mobilefuture.org

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