Amid a spate of high-profile mobile device releases (and forecasts that sales will drive a decided uptick in U.S. GDP growth), the Federal Communications Commission on Friday voted to proceed with incentive auctions aimed at shifting more airwave capacity to the urgent cause of expanding the mobile Internet to keep pace with the fast-growing demands of 300 million wireless Americans.
The U.S. leads the world in mobile adoption--especially when it comes to advanced devices and networks. We are home to the largest 3G and 4G populations on earth. A majority of Americans now own smartphones. A third of us also have an e-reader or video tablet. Will we stop there? Hardly. Analysts forecast that there will be nine connected devices for every American by 2016.
Currently, only 15% of available wireless airwaves--known as spectrum--supports all of this mobility we take for granted--and the rising tide of connected machines, from smart home appliances to personal health monitoring devices, on the way. Wireless companies are investing billions of dollars in state-of-the-art networks to support this growth. But they need more spectrum to break up a mounting mobile traffic jam that we're already starting to see in some dense metropolitan areas today.
While Washington focuses on policy and politics, Deloitte lays bare the economic and competitiveness stakes for our nation in an expansive new report on the "airwave overload." The report echoes the FCC's own warning that fast-rising demand for mobile Internet will soon overwhelm existing capacity. It focuses its call to action on Washington, urging a market-oriented spectrum policy built to support an expanding mobile economy.
The report makes clear that the U.S. leads the world in mobile innovation. Deloitte's Mobile Telecom Achievement Index compares 20 countries. Yardsticks include mobile penetration per capita, advanced device penetration, wireless data speeds, price per minute, capital investment and number of carriers competing in the marketplace. The U.S. comes out well ahead under this matrix.
Yet massive wireless expansions in Japan and Korea and the steady gains of China and India are rapidly narrowing the gap. "U.S. mobile broadband leadership depends on maintaining a robust and adaptable wireless infrastructure capable of offering new services and meeting growing demand" the report reads. "Continued U.S. leadership is not assured given current trends." Simply put, the slow-moving nature of the policy process is causing a shortage of spectrum in the pipeline, which impedes our ability to go toe-to-toe with our competitors.
For a generation, the hallmark of U.S. technology policy has been a 'light-touch' approach to innovation. More than ever, we need government leaders -- backed by sound, data-driven decision-making and a healthy dose of regulatory humility-- to apply this standard as well when it comes to our nation's spectrum policy.
We get there by starting at the end: What outcome most benefits mobile innovation--and its 300 million U.S. fans? A seamless continued growth of the wireless web, a sustained high-quality experience for consumers and innovators alike and the resulting substantial economic, jobs and revenue growth.
Getting there is the trick. Twenty-plus years into our nation's climb to global tech greatness, Deloitte identifies the core 'lessons learned,' warning that the FCC should "avoid specific, prescriptive formulations that may be based on assumptions that are overtaken by events" and instead "favor policies that leave to markets the task of determining how best to capitalize on opportunities and resolve challenges related to mobile broadband."
The blunt translation of this polite assessment? Government has a checkered past when it seeks to shape markets defined by fast-moving innovation and growth. Let the innovators innovate. Let companies compete. Let consumers decide. And, if policymakers exercise restraint, then the U.S. will continue to lead.
Just like the networks they support, there is a 'need for speed' in Washington. Timely action. Transparent work. And, straightforward, market-driven rules that ensure spectrum follows consumers, not regulators, will help unleash the next wave of U.S. innovation. Here's hoping we continue the momentum and sense of urgency from the FCC's initiative. In doing so, we advance not only sound spectrum policy but bold economic growth policy in a connected and mobile age.
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 in the Clinton Administration as a Director on the National Security Council.