Mobile Future

A welcome look at the wireless ‘big picture’

At its meeting tomorrow, the FCC is expected to vote to commence a
broad review of America’s wireless sector. This is a terrific
opportunity for the new Commission to take a fresh, comprehensive and
clear-eyed look at a wide range of issues with high-stakes implications
for our nation’s economy, innovation community, and consumers.

The discussion is off to a good start with Chairman Julius
Genachowski’s recent comments that wireless is "an extraordinary
opportunity for the country in terms of unleashing a new wave of
innovation, a new wave of investment, jobs created here in the U.S. and
bringing competition to the full communications marketplace."

As the FCC convenes to determine the range of issues they will
explore, here are a few suggestions that go deeper than the headlines
of the moment:

If you build it, will they come? Maybe. Here’s a
timely warning for anyone who wants to increase federal regulatory
involvement in wireless: For all the talk about how Americans are
desperate for more bandwidth, the realities of how we deliver it in a
robust and sustainable way are pretty complex.

Sure, 4G wireless will blossom next year and go national by 2011.
But is there a sure path for mobile innovators, companies, and
entrepreneurs to recoup their investment and make money? Not
necessarily. There’s a lot of excitement around Clearwire as it rolls
out WiMax nationwide. But a recent Merrill Lynch report,
noting credit market constraints and the sour economy, gave this
company a target stock price of just $3 a share, less than half its
current price.

The dilemma: With billions of dollars at stake, competition rampant,
and consumer habits changing faster than technology, there’s hardly a
guarantee of success. Will future policies help or hurt?

Apps, apps everywhere. "There are going to be more
smartphone launches in the next couple of months than we’ve ever seen
before," according to Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney, quoted in the
current Fortune cover story on wireless. But the real impact isn’t only in the hardware, it’s also with wireless applications.

As Fortune’s Jessi Hempel correctly reports, "consumer’s
expectations about what smartphones should provide are also evolving
rapidly. Mobile phone users increasingly want to access the web more
than they want to make calls. They’re gravitating toward Tweeting
rather than long e-mails. And they want applications, those programs
that let you check the weather, play games, and even balance your
checkbook."

Yes, Apple has the apps lead now, but watch for this competition to
get a lot tougher, as developers quickly embrace new smartphone
software.

Phones of the future. This summer, we saw a non-stop parade of new PDAs,
each with their own "wow" factors. But here’s why even these
breakthroughs will be significantly outdated in the coming years:

  • Nokia has developed a concept phone
    that is able to morph between a traditional phone and a bracelet with
    the help of flexible materials and nanotechnology. The Morph will even
    be able to measure environmental hazards such as carbon dioxide levels
    or sense the blood sugar imbalance of a diabetic using microscopic
    sensors.
  • Ever run out of power during a call? The Atlas Kinetic concept phone
    uses weights and springs to draw energy from everyday motion, like a
    self-winding watch. So you’ll never again have to plug in your phone
    each night.
  • Earlier this year, LG unveiled a prototype touch screen Watch Phone that also texts, emails and shoots photos.
  • Finally, Motorola deserves kudos for already creating
    the world’s first carbon-neutral mobile phone. Called the Renew, it’s
    made from recycled plastic and delivered in a box made from recycled
    paper. Former Vice President Gore, who spoke earlier this year at CTIA about the positive impact of wireless technology on energy efficiency, certainly would approve of such "green" innovations.


We’ll also see the utility and power of spectrum-based services move
beyond the communications realm and into sectors like healthcare,
energy, education and other fields as a way to leverage the energy and
power of the more than 3.3 billion people on the planet with mobile
devices.

Choice will continue to expand. Current market
trends continue to belie the claim that consumer choice is lacking in
wireless. Metro PCS booked its best quarter ever this year, adding
nearly 700,000 subscribers in the first quarter. Cricket subscribers
rose about 40 percent year-to-year. What this means is that choices in
calling and data plans are nearly certain to continue their expansion,
probably in ways we can’t project. That’s another sign of vibrant
competition, which is the foundation for greater innovation.

The FCC’s examination will see the true success story of today’s
wireless industry – a sector that’s continually evolving to include
more powerful devices, robust networks and competitive pricing. But
there’s still a lot of uncertainty. The Commission is right to look at
wireless. We hope they look beyond current headlines and take a deep
dive into the range of factors that make the wireless sector a vibrant
and competitive engine of American innovation and economic growth.

This item was originally posted on Huffington Post on August 26, 2009.