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Wireless Policy in a Bipartisan World

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With the pundits dissecting the meaning of the mid-term elections and the implications of the D.C. power shift, the conventional wisdom appears to be that little can or will get done in Washington. As the argument goes, Republicans now control the House of Representatives, so it is largely unthinkable that the two parties could work together on major issues. After all, another high-stakes election is "just around the corner" in 2012.

When folks speak up for bipartisanship, they tend to talk with sweeping historic references. The Civil Rights Act of 1964. The 'third-way' efforts of President Clinton. But a steady, ongoing precedent for meaningful cooperation exists right now in U.S. wireless policy.

Through periods of both Republican and Democratic leadership in Washington, U.S. mobile innovation has been carefully nurtured through policies that allow consumer choices and market competition to shape and direct its progress. This approach was largely rooted in Congress' bipartisan decision in 1993 to embrace a pro-innovation framework that favored competition over regulation.

How's it working out? The U.S. now has the most competitive mobile marketplace on earth--a fact that's documented in a new report from the Mobile Future coalition, entitled "Mobile Momentum: How Consumer-Driven Competition Shapes & Defines the Modern U.S. Wireless Landscape."

As the report documents, diverse consumer choices define every corner of the mobile marketplace. Two-thirds of Americans can choose from among five or more wireless providers and a broad array of service choices — from family plans to flat monthly "all in" voice, data and texting plans. Among the latest examples: Wal-Mart, in partnership with T-Mobile, is now offering $45 per month unlimited voice and texting — with no contract required. And, AT&T is advertising data plan add-ons for as little as $15 a month.

As a result of this competition, our nation is home to the world's lowest per-minute voice prices, the largest 3G customer base and is a leader in 4G network deployment. We enjoy the most competitive device and application markets, with more than 65 smartphones introduced to U.S. consumers in 2008 and 2009 alone and more than 300,000 apps available from at least 10 stores.

According to the FCC, wireless customer satisfaction rates stand at 92%. And, Americans are adopting wireless Internet access at a rate of 2:1 today over traditional wired broadband. Yet in its last competition report, the FCC declined to observe that the wireless marketplace was competitive, stating that it was holding back for "superior outcomes." While it's important that we set a high bar and there certainly are areas for improvement, it's equally imperative that we recognize our success to date.

It is a foundation FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski can build from, particularly on spectrum policy, to ensure wireless remains a catalyst for progress throughout our society.

To his credit, Chairman Genachowski has challenged all Americans — innovators, policy makers, and consumers — to work together in building a sustainable and comprehensive approach to managing America's spectrum in the years to come. His efforts, along with key initiatives by Larry Strickling at NTIA to identify and free up more spectrum, have been both visionary and timely. By working in a bipartisan way with the new Congress, as well as in a cooperative way with all stakeholders in the American mobile ecosystem, the FCC under Chairman Genachowski can make great strides in the coming months in harnessing innovation in policy, in our capital markets, and in industry, and set the stage for even more competition and innovation in our mobile and wireless sector.

And, thanks to robust competition, hundreds of billions of dollars in private investment offer the promise of driving next-generation infrastructure and helping to ensure the U.S. remains a global leader in mobile innovation. Since 2006, an average of $20 billion annually in private capital has flowed into U.S. mobile infrastructure. In fact, cumulative capital investment rose 8% from June 2009 to June 2010 — despite the current recession. This is essential progress for what President Obama calls "the next transformation in information technology."

The reality is that wireless has thrived because Washington, through the ebbs and flows of political fortunes, has made a purposeful decision to let consumers and innovators take the lead. Just as we need political leaders who reach across the aisle, so do we need mobile innovation to continue to thrive and evolve in robust and surprising ways — taking paths that are hard for static regulatory regimes to predict, let alone encourage.

As our society and economy prepare for the next wave of innovation, we need to acknowledge the path that got us this far: rapid, awe-inspiring innovation from a myriad of sources and profound private-sector risk-taking — all fueled by a bipartisan policy framework that showed rare restraint and clear deference to consumer choices in a competitive marketplace. There are many lessons to be learned from Tuesday. One is that while elections are inevitably partisan, sound policy that stands the test of time often is not.

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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