THE BLOG
09/17/2013 12:18 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2013

Innovation or Magic?  How About Both

I recently found myself in the company of a number of thoughtful people discussing what was needed to make internet protocol (IP) services reach every household in the country. The best suggestion I heard was "magic." And that makes me confident we will get this done. 

The setting wasn't a meeting of the minds on a sorcery message board. It was a panel discussion in the U.S. Capitol among leaders in telecom policy. We were addressing the transition from copper wire to internet protocol networks, or IP networks. It's not the sort of conversation that often veers into the supernatural, but magic was in the air.

For starters, representatives from industry, consumer organizations, market research and minority groups all agreed on the central point of the issue: that the transition to IP is happening and offers consumers considerably more services than legacy copper wire networks. Harold Feld from Public Knowledge explained that we've reached a "tipping point" and we're already seeing a lot of success in this transition.  

Illustrating this success, Maurita Coley of the Minority Media & Telecom Council added that the transition was already happening in traditionally disconnected minority communities. They have become the biggest mover in mobile internet adoption with wireless phones often their only access to the internet. Roger Entner of Recon Analytics revealed their research that shows consumers have already been organically transitioning to IP in droves by choosing not to keep their landlines after relocating.

Despite this consensus, we all agreed that critics of the IP transition would claim anything less than one hundred percent connectivity, even over challenging terrain throughout the country, as a failure. Harold elicited some chuckles from the audience saying "intelligent design" was needed or perhaps some magic fairy dust.  

He was right on the money and didn't even realize it. To prove it, I offered up Arthur C. Clarke's Three Laws of Innovation.  

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Harold was right. Those wizened voices that reflexively dismiss the impact of technological evolution are frequently wrong. Look back at some of the fierce debates we've had in this space over the past couple decades and see how many were founded on fears of the unknown or predictions that never materialized. Remember Y2K? Technology quietly solved that problem.

Those who look to the future of the telecommunications landscape and see only challenges that can't be met are ignoring the tremendous hurdles we've already cleared. Smartphone adoption is happening at the fastest rate of any technology in human history. Ever. This is driving the massive increase in demand for mobile data traffic for which IP networks are essential.

While more spectrum will also be needed for further wireless growth, it's hard to look at the last five years of innovation and conclude that technology isn't advancing rapidly. Over five years ago we didn't even have an app market, and now people are doing incredible things with small, mobile software.  

Who could have ever imagined back then that we would use devices in our pockets and purses to shop for real estate, identify a song, house a library or help us eat and exercise better? Shazam would have certainly looked like magic back then, and innovation already in the pipeline looks that way now.   

Consider what's happening in the mobile medical space. The AirStrip app allows a physician to monitor vitals from a number of patients on an iPad from any location. Abriiz's asthma app has helped reduce children's emergency room visits by more than 80 percent. And using the AliveCor ECG app, a doctor on a cross-country flight was able to diagnose a passenger's chest pains as a heart attack and saved his life.

We've seen the tip of the iceberg and the possibilities are dazzling. The things we will be able to achieve in the near future will profoundly change our lives -- and save lives -- in ways we haven't even considered. Maybe it's not magic, but what we can do now would have seemed so ten years ago. And the solutions we'll find to connect everyone to IP networks may look magical to some, but it's really just the innovation we should come to expect. Given how far smartphone technology has spread in less than a decade, it's hard to believe we won't meet these challenges as well.