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Now What? How Can the FCC Avoid the Looming Spectrum Crisis?

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Last week, I had the good fortune to speak to more than 300 mobile developers at the MoDev East conference. Preceding me on the schedule was David Payne, the Chief Digital Officer for Gannett (USA Today), who gave a fantastic presentation about where the world is headed for news outlets and mobile apps.

David's presentation described integrated video content as the main reason USA Today's app has emerged as the most popular news application. He explained that video is where the news industry was headed. The audience cheered, developers tweeted and I sat there, waiting to come on stage, thinking "uh oh."

Why did I have reservations about USA Today's app video success story? Because I knew the nasty bump in the road we already face in the mobile app community. We have a wireless bandwidth shortfall. While some of those USA Today video watchers are using their home WiFi networks, more and more are relying on the built-in 3G or LTE capability of their wireless device. You may think, "so what"?

Well, video absolutely crushes wireless networks.

Wireless expert Peter Rysavy has noted the impacts of video on networks. In fact, a busload of schoolgirls watching Justin Bieber videos can saturate an entire wireless tower, throttling everyone else's connection speeds, causing mail clients to time-out when trying to retrieve email, and blocking access to other users throughout a three block radius.

In simplest terms, HD video is the Armageddon Day of wireless spectrum. You can build more towers, pull more backhaul, and light up more fiber, but at the end of the day, there are only so many signals that can fit in the amount of spectrum that carriers are currently allowed to use. And HD video obliterates that.

For that reason, I was personally disappointed with the FCC's approach to the AT&T/T-Mobile merger because the Commission failed to address our country's fundamental communications infrastructure problem -- mobile devices need more bandwidth. Throughout this process, the mobile app developer community has been desperately hoping that its call for more spectrum would resonate with the FCC. Mobile developers need bandwidth, which means we need spectrum to create the next generation of universe-shifting mobile apps.

USA Today has it right. Mobile video is a huge growth area for content delivery and an essential feature for news organizations. The app market that has generated this massive increase in demand is one of the fastest growing segments of our economy. At $7 billion-dollar-a-year, and expected to double in size every year until 2014, the app marketplace is a remarkable success story in a flagging economy.

Whatever decision AT&T and the FCC come to regarding the merger, the Commission must take affirmative steps to address our nation's wireless Achilles heel. U.S. app makers are innovation leaders, driving the global development of the mobile app marketplace. That can easily change if the spectrum shortage is allowed to become a greater problem through government inaction. We need the government to move with un-governmental speed to put more spectrum into the market, so that developers aren't held hostage by the bus full of Bieber-watchers.

Sure, getting slow and stuttered video on your USA Today app is bad, but imagine the impact that our bandwidth shortage will have on more fundamental products like healthcare apps, business backend services, or educational programs. The result of bad connectivity in these settings is a bit more consequential.

Imagine a doctor using the AirStrip app who can no longer remotely monitor the vital signs of a pregnant patient's unborn child because that Bieber-watching bus is parked outside the hospital. The alternative is to continuously stand watch over a single patient - something no single doctor has the time to do.

Or what if there is an emergency business meeting being held on WebEx where the CEO loses connection just as he is delivering key numbers to his board of directors? Or imagine that students using the Blackboard app lose connection to their professor just when study keys are given for the final exam. These are all real-life situations for which spectrum shortages can have really bad consequences.

When this happens, it isn't just that we lose the benefits of new communications technology. What happens is America loses its position as the incubator and global leader of the app industry. Technology innovation happens in an environment that can sustain it. App developers cannot sell apps requiring more resources than users have access to.

While other countries have invested wisely to meet their spectrum needs, the U.S. has not and its citizens will soon have less access to high-speed services. Without these services, app makers here will no longer be creating cutting edge innovation that their customers are demanding. If the U.S. government doesn't act quickly to alleviate the looming bandwidth crisis, America will be left trying to figure out how it let a $50 billion industry leave for greener pastures.

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