Washington has been predictably (and rightly) consumed by increasingly urgent warnings of an imminent mobile capacity crunch. The calls for timely action come from the highest levels of both technology and policy circles, and they have set off a classically byzantine inside-Washington debate over allocation of spectrum -- the invisible infrastructure that makes all wireless connectivity possible.
Formidable interests lie on both sides of the debate. In one corner stands the powerful broadcast lobby with its ready access to the local airwaves in Congressional districts across the country. Broadcasters sit atop a large swath of spectrum they neither completely need nor use for the small percentage of Americans that rely on over the air broadcast television.
In the other corner stands the mobile innovation community, which urgently needs more spectrum to support consumers' enthusiastic embrace of the mobile Internet. Of the nation's 300 million wireless consumers, 90% feel so strongly about their mobile device that they keep it within arms' reach 24 hours a day.
Pressing down on it all is a new world order driven by rapidly advancing innovation and barrier-breaking consumer choices. The latest evidence: For the first time in two decades, the number of U.S. homes with televisions has declined, and Nielsen is now contemplating redefining the term "television households" to include online-only viewing as it grapples with the challenge of TV ratings in a digital world.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski has wisely opted to stay above the political fray and seek the high ground of a 'third way' to unlock continued expansion of the mobile Internet. He's calling for 'incentive auctions,' under which broadcasters voluntarily step forward, offer their spectrum for auction or relocate to a different channel and share the multi-billion-dollar spoils with the U.S. Treasury (which desperately needs the funds to help close the budget gap). Broadcasters would net a profit (off spectrum they were granted for free). Over-the-air television viewers would be seamlessly accommodated. And, the mobile Internet boom would continue.
It's an innovative approach. What few predicted, however, was the response of some broadcasters to it. Rather than advocating for the most favorable terms possible, they have opted to deny the rapid expansion of the mobile Internet and the urgent need for timely action to ensure the connectivity we've all come to rely on doesn't come to a grinding halt or, more accurately, slow to an excruciating crawl.
Here are three key facts every mobile consumer should know:
- You need more spectrum. It's simple math. The average smartphone uses 25x the capacity of a basic feature cell phone. The average tablet device uses 5x the data of a smartphone. Already today there are more smartphones sold in the U.S. than personal computers, and we are just beginning to see what these devices can do to benefit our lives and our economy.
- Time is of the essence. According to a recent analysis for Mobile Future by Rysavy Research, consumer demand for spectrum could outstrip supply in as little as three to four years' time. We have to act now to identify and begin the time-consuming process of making more spectrum available for wireless consumers and building the infrastructure that will get it into timely use.
- The alternative is unacceptable (and easily avoided). Efficiency efforts and strategic mergers will help, but they alone won't close the gap. We are either headed for a world of scarcity, increasing the likelihood of higher prices, rationed services, slower service and other unappealing options, or policymakers take action very soon to support the broad public interest in a robust and continually expanding mobile Internet.
The details of the spectrum debate at times can seem inscrutable and abstract to all but the most ardent of policy wonks. But the stakes for consumers and our economy couldn't be more plainly evident to anyone who's ever rolled their eyes at a dropped connection or drummed their fingers at an unusually long load time.
Addressing the coming spectrum crunch is a daunting political challenge for Washington. Yet it is one we as a nation cannot afford to delay or deny. At stake is not only the fate of the Internet in the palm of our hands, but the competitiveness of our nation in an increasingly connected and mobile world.
Broadcasters are indeed holding a powerful hand. It's high time they play it. Debating the terms of the spectrum transition is a constructive path forward. Denial is neither a sound strategy nor an effective way forward.
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.
Mobile Future is a 501(c)(4) coalition comprised of and supported by technology businesses, non-profit organizations and individuals dedicated to advocating for an environment in which innovations in wireless technology and services are enabled and encouraged. For a full list of members and sponsors and to learn more about the coalition, go to www.mobilefuture.org.