From speculation about the Federal Communications Commission's upcoming annual report on wireless competition, and the debates about the proposed purchase by AT&T of T-Mobile, we hear from many corners that our nation can do better. While I believe that is always the case, I fear that getting lost in the debate is the critical acknowledgement that our nation has the most competitive wireless market on earth. From innovative devices to exceptional value on our monthly bills to the boom in applications, our nation leads the world. And, while we push to make continued progress, it's equally important that we stop and recognize the many things we're already getting right.
In the early years of wireless, competition could be measured by a simple yardstick: How many carriers were in the market? That remains an important question, but many new ones deserve equal time. In today's rich, diverse, and ever innovating mobile ecosystem, the benchmarks are far more complex and rapidly shifting. From applications and devices to new business models and market players, assessing the rapidly expanding mobile marketplace is a far more complex endeavor.
As important competition debates get underway, here are six things to consider:
- 5+ National Carriers. Let's start with the old stand-by--number of carriers--and face the elephant in the room: Even with an AT&T-T-Mobile merger, the vast majority of Americans will have no less than 5 national carriers to choose from--before you even get to the nimble regional players who are establishing a strong foothold in key markets today.
- The Price is Right. Think about how you use your mobile device today versus just three years ago. U.S. consumers enjoy the lowest wireless per-minute voice prices in the world and have options to add data for as little as $15 a month. It all adds up to real value.
- Diverse devices, diverse choices. Americans can choose from more than 630 devices supplied by at least 32 manufacturers... and counting. Our mobile hungry public is a magnet for intense competition in this segment of the marketplace, as well. The latest evidence? The early success of the iPad proved the viability and size of the fast-emerging tablet market and--thanks to competition--many other market players are joining the fray, including Samsung, Blackberry, Motorola and other tech heavyweights.
- Apps Abound. It began with the introduction of Apple's app store in 2008. Today, U.S. wireless customers can access nearly 1 million mobile applications from 26 competing apps stores. This marketplace has seen astronomical growth -- more than 10 billion app downloads from the Apple store alone by last count -- and is just getting started. By 2015, the "apps economy" is projected to generate $38 billion in sales--those are real jobs and economic opportunities flowing primarily to the U.S.
- New Entrants, New Rivalries. With the current environment of constant innovation, new and serious competitors are emerging. Many in the tech world are closely watching Microsoft's purchase of Skype. Is the Redmond company on the fast track to becoming the next major wireless provider? Will this new combination catalyze the nascent video chat market? Another potential disruptor is the recent claim of Google's Eric Schmidt that the company's Android phone wallet "could replace your credit card." The mobile payment market barely exists in the U.S. today, but it is likely to take shape quickly and have far-reaching implications throughout the mobile ecosystem.
- Customer Satisfaction. And let's not forget what consumers themselves have to say about their mobile experience: 92% of U.S. wireless customers tell the FCC they are satisfied with their mobile service. Those are boffo numbers for any heavily used retail offering and a strong indication that value, innovation and choice abound.
Americans get an incredible amount of value and innovation from their mobile experience. And, in no small measure, credit is due to policymakers who for the past couple of decades have gotten it right by taking a light-touch approach to regulation. Their vigilance today is admirable--and appropriate. But it doesn't change the fact that American mobile innovation remains the envy of the world and there's no reason to believe consumers won't continue to enjoy these mobile benefits and opportunities going forward. Without a doubt, we must stay on our toes to continue the success story, to continue to innovate, and to continue to stay competitive globally. But key to maintaining our edge is recognizing the extraordinary competition that has carved it so sharply to date.
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.
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