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The Spectrum Shot Clock

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As Americans across the country turn to their mobile devices to track the final brackets of the NCAA college basketball tournament, technology policy circles are turning to a high-stakes game of their own: The need to move quickly and decisively to unlock additional spectrum to meet the fast-growing demands of our connected society and economy.

At stake is the rapid innovation, economic growth and huge quality of life leaps being made at the intersection of mobile connectivity and the increasingly diverse ways we put it to use. Modern life is being transformed by the power of the Internet in the palms of our hands.

The trajectory of our mobile usage is advancing at warp speed. Cell phones have advanced to smartphones, which are now diversifying to tablets. Many of us choose an 'all-of-the-above' strategy, incorporating an array of beloved and increasingly essential connected gadgetry into our personal and professional lives.

As consumers, we take this uber-connectivity for granted. But tough decisions and timely leadership are needed right now in Washington to ensure quality connectivity remains the case.

The nation's airwaves support various types of wireless connectivity, from smartphones and iPads to baby monitors, ham radios and non-digital television. In geek speak, we call this resource spectrum, 'invisible infrastructure'. Over the years, spectrum use has dramatically evolved, with hundreds of millions of new mobile consumers craving faster, robust wireless services that connect virtually every device they touch. Unfortunately, while consumer demand is increasing, the amount of spectrum available to deliver mobile broadband is not.

When more spectrum needed for one use, inevitably various interests will throw a few elbows as they jostle for precious real estate. Policymakers must step in as the referees to determine how best to put this limited resource to its most public-spirited use.

Today, the White House and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski are leading the charge to free up more spectrum for mobile broadband. The Chairman is also rightly conveying a growing sense of urgency, warning that 'the clock is ticking on our mobile future.'

Here's why: As consumers trade up from basic feature cell phones to smart phones, their mobile Internet usage increases 30-fold. As millions of us add iPads and other tablets into the mix, these video-friendly devices use five times the data of today's smartphones. Consumer demand for mobile Internet shows no sign of abating, which means more spectrum must be made available soon to meet their growing needs.

Politically, the issue currently pits broadcasters, who were given vast spectrum assets decades ago, against the mobile innovation community, which urgently needs more capacity today. Broadcasters claim as their base the 42 million Americans who continue to use over-the-air television. The innovation community claims 300 million wireless consumers -- 90% of whom are so devoted to their mobile device that they keep it within arms' reach 24 hours a day.

Chairman Genachowski is challenging all sides to rise above the fray by championing the idea of 'incentive auctions.' Under this approach, broadcasters would voluntarily hand over their spectrum assets to the government or move to another channel more efficiently using the spectrum, in exchange for a share of the auction proceeds. Broadcasters would get compensated, alongside the federal treasury, which desperately needs the revenues to close the current budget gap. And, those who pay top-dollar for the spectrum would face powerful market pressures to put it quickly to its greatest public use.

In the parlance of March Madness, the shot clock is running on our mobile connectivity. According to a new report released by Rysavy Research, rising consumer demand for mobile Internet could outstrip existing, allocated spectrum capacity in as little as four years. Most of us have had the occasional experience of a dropped call or missed connection. It's not something we want to see become a routine occurrence. The good news? The wireless community stands ready to make the massive investment needed to put additional spectrum to use for consumers and our economy. We simply need to push now to get the process underway.

This puts the ball squarely in Washington's court. Consumers should be able to take mobile connectivity for granted. But policymakers cannot. Over the coming weeks and months, Washington technology policy circles will be consumed by the details of the playbook. But on the quiet of the FCC's eighth floor and in the halls of Congress, what can't be lost in the debate is the roar of the crowd. We can't afford to run down the clock on our mobile future. Policymakers must make their move now to unlock more spectrum for the wireless web and, with it, the next wave of American innovation.

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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