Loathe the Loading Symbol on Your Mobile Device?

The federal government needs to invest in wireless broadband and spectrum improvements to meet data demand.

Guest Column By Jonathan Spalter

Wireless innovation is at the center of our modern daily lives. With more than 330 million mobile devices in the nation, there are currently more wireless devices than people in the United States.

And, more than half of us are practically attached to our smartphones. Chances are, you may even be reading this article via a device sitting in the palm of your hand. 

With the heavily anticipated launch of the new iPhone and potentially a mini iPad, early indications and expectations for strong sales are extremely high. In fact, Apple sold more connected mobile devices in 2011 than it sold Mac computers in the 28 years of its storied existence. Some analysts are even forecasting that sales of the new iPhone will boost the nation’s GDP up to half of a percentage point. 

The robust capabilities of the new iPhone will run over advanced 4G LTE networks that deliver even more mobile capacity and speed to Americans—and an increasing array of devices that will run on these turbo charged advanced networks are coming to market from multiple competitors virtually every day. 

As we’ve seen with both the smartphone and tablet revolutions, mobile innovation leads to fast-rising consumer demand for robust wireless connectivity. Have an iPhone 4S in your pocket? Those who do consume on average three times as much mobile data as iPhone 3G users. AT&T was the first to have the iPhone (three network providers will offer the new version). The company saw a 20,000% increase in data traffic on their networks since 2007, the year of the iPhone’s original debut. 

We only need look at our daily lives to see the value of this connectivity. But it requires billions of dollars in ongoing investment to keep these connections reliable and strong. Already with the runaway popularity of mobile Internet devices, North America’s wireless networks operate at 80 percent of capacity compared to the global average of 65 percent. With new and ever more advanced devices being introduced to Americans nearly every month, that demand will continue to quickly grow. 

In fact, the Federal Communications Commission has warned that consumer demand for wireless spectrum-the airwaves that connect our mobile devices-could outstrip existing capacity as early as next year. Putting aside the engineering speak, that means dropped calls, slower loading applications and potentially even higher prices. 

Network operators are investing billions of dollars in next generation networks, including $113 billion in the five years since the iPhone’s launch. The challenge? Investment alone won’t avert growing congestion. Today, due to antiquated federal spectrum allocations, American wireless consumers have the shortest end of the national spectrum stick. In fact, mobile services only have access to less than 16 percent of the best suited spectrum for wireless. The rest still remains primarily in the hands of the U.S. government, and broadcasters with significant swaths of that spectrum underutilized. 

That has to change—and soon. Government leaders must set policies that encourage continued investment and innovation in advanced networks to keep pace with growing consumer demand. Government must also make more spectrum available for the mobile Internet. Multiple solutions will be needed to address such a large and complex challenge. One solution is to repurpose and maximize underutilized spectrum currently held by various federal agencies. Another is to voluntarily auction off spectrum given for free to television broadcasters decades ago. In parallel, our leaders must support a vibrant and successful secondary market for spectrum to help ensure more capacity gets put to its most valued use—making our gadgets go. 

The right steps need to be taken now to ensure American mobile innovation remains the envy of the world. This progress has placed extraordinary power in the palms of our hands. It is time for our leaders to step up and ensure it stays there. 

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 in the Clinton Administration as a Director on the National Security Council


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