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Watching Wireless Grow Up (and Up and Up)

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Wireless growth and usage show no signs of slowing as more Americans are increasingly using mobile to connect. In 2011 alone, wireless data traffic grew 133%, and with more wireless subscriptions than people in the U.S., it's no wonder. The hype around the new iPad and the reality of mobile video coming to a handset near you are yet two more confirmations that consumers, including a growing number of small businesses, continue to adopt mobile products, services and technologies at a record clip.

Looking ahead, Cisco predicts there will be 2 billion networked mobile devices in the U.S. by 2015. With exploding demand for new devices and services, wireless networks are shuddering under unprecedented usage. As wireless adoptions accelerate at a blistering pace, both network operators and policymakers are scrambling to make more spectrum, the radio waves that connect mobile devices, available to stay one step ahead of consumer demand for all things wireless.

Let's take a closer look at the numbers. Since the iPhone debuted in 2007, AT&T reports that traffic on the company's wireless network increased an astonishing 20,000%. Siri, the omniscient voice of the iPhone 4S, devours bandwidth -- using twice as much data as the iPhone 4 and nearly three times as much as the iPhone 3G. And it's not just the iPhone. Today, consumers can choose from over 400 smartphones on the market, with U.S. smartphone shipments now outpacing PCs.

The staggering reliance on wireless devices is leading to a massive spectrum drain. Tablet devices are redefining the wireless ecosystem, with one in three Americans now owning a mobile reading device. New generations of these ubiquitous tablets are further draining the spectrum inventory. The new iPad, for instance, supports faster 4G mobile networks that deliver impressive data speeds -- and suck up spectrum.

With one billion apps downloaded worldwide each month in 2011, consumers are doing more on their mobile devices leading experts to predict that wireless data traffic will grow 100 times faster than mobile voice traffic over the next 10 years. This is a thrilling future but only if our wireless networks have the capacity to handle the surge in consumer demand and usage. Here's a startling fact that causes us concern: North American mobile networks already are running at 80% of capacity, compared to the world average of 65%.

When you consider the blazing fast speeds needed for streaming video, accessing audio, capturing high-resolution photographs and downloading gaming apps, it is not surprising consumers are taxing mobile networks and the spectrum that fuels them, at unprecedented rates. Given the staggering demand, it is equally predictable that the finite resource that is spectrum is rapidly becoming a very rare commodity.

The FCC published its National Broadband Plan in 2010, followed by President Obama's National Wireless Initiative a year later, both calling for an additional 500 MHz of spectrum for mobile in the next 10 years as an answer to the spectrum crunch. Policymakers have since been at work trying to realize these goals. For instance, President Obama and Congress recently passed legislation authorizing the FCC to conduct voluntary incentive auctions aimed at reclaiming broadcast spectrum for mobile. The NTIA is also studying various spectrum bands used by the government that may be repurposed for commercial use. Secondary market transactions and efficiently maximizing spectrum use round out the work carriers are doing independently to deal with a potential spectrum deficiency, all with a goal of ensuring a quality wireless experience for all U.S. consumers.

Today, policymakers have an opportunity to transform challenges into opportunities by adopting policy prescriptions that make more spectrum available for mobile and enable robust wireless investment and innovation. Policymakers cannot keep pace with the innovation we see in the mobile sector but they must act swiftly and make freeing up more spectrum for mobile a top priority. Consumers deserve -- and will demand -- continued access to the latest and greatest technologies that place the power of information in the palms of their hands. To make the mobile future as bright as possible, the 300 million American wireless consumers and a growing chorus of small businesses now depend on Washington to answer their call.

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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