With the imminent exit of FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and President Obama’s selection for his successor headed into the Senate confirmation process, there are few more clear-cut cases for timely action in Washington. Skip the morning newsfeeds, and you’re almost certain to miss yet another ‘gee-whiz’ story about how mobile connectivity is changing our lives. The latest? In a mere two years, our wireless devices will be the primary means by which Americans connect to the Internet.
Today, nine out of ten U.S. consumers can choose from three mobile broadband providers. And, genuine investment-based competition has never been more intense. America’s wireless innovators are spending billions to deploy 4G LTE networks to provide high-quality service to discriminating customers, more than any other American business sector. In fact, no less than 16 providers will offer this next-generation service this year. As a result, 7 out of every 10 of the world’s 4G LTE subscribers are here in the U.S.
Wireless data use continues to increase dramatically year-over-year. As mobile innovators anxiously await urgently needed spectrum auctions that will expand the capacity of the wireless web, secondary market transactions have emerged as mission-critical to keep pace with fast-expanding demand.
The broad choice of service provider is only one of many decisions that empower mobile consumers. Price, quality and composition of service plan span the gamut of consumer wants and desires. Recently, AT&T announced the launch of a prepaid, data-centric brand called Aio Wireless. T-Mobile has joined Verizon and AT&T in offering contract-free phones. Plans start at $50 a month for unlimited talk and text plus 500mb of data. Wal-Mart, too, is living up to its value brand–offering unlimited talk, text and data for $45 per month. FreedomPop, Page Plus, Karma, and Voyager are among a growing group of virtual operators offering new services plans providing 4G Internet for free or at minimal cost. And, thanks to evolving consumer expectations in a competitive market, most carriers now allow customers to add devices and/or family members to their plan at a steep discount.
Competition also extends to the 266 wireless handsets now being sold in the U.S. market by 23 different manufacturers–nearly 3 times the number of device makers in our market just two years ago. Consumers also can choose from more than 1 million apps for their iOS devices and 675,000 for Android–downloading 25 billion apps last year alone.
More opportunities lie ahead. Facebook Mobile is going after the most prime real estate known to the digital world–the opening screen of your mobile device–rolling out an option for Android consumers to have Facebook’s newsfeed, friends, messaging and other services all at the ready from screen one–serving as the dominant user interface.
Real competition, creative disruption, and constant transformation throughout the mobile ecosystem have been the foundation for the continued growth and dynamism of the industry. Without acknowledgement of this reality, innovation could be at risk from those who advocate for a return to outmoded regulations that seek to artificially sustain certain competitors at the expense of investment and of marketplace-fueled innovation.
Fueling the apprehension is a recent comment by the Department of Justice in testimony on Capitol Hill indicating that it opposed inclusive spectrum auctions that allow all providers to pursue the broadband capacity they need to best serve their current and future customers. This is nothing less than a slap in the face to the tens of millions of mobile consumers who have chosen to use AT&T or Verizon as their service provider, and have a right to expect their government won’t put its thumb on the scales to favor market outcomes for other competitors. But more generally, it is an ominous signal for the future of mobile innovation for all Americans.
The comment stands in stark contrast to the Obama Administration’s overall strong track record of taking steps to help facilitate wireless growth, investment and high-capacity mobile Internet. In fact, in a widely lauded initiative announced two years ago, the Administration specifically underscored the importance to our economy of making sufficient spectrum resources available to help all wireless providers keep pace with rapidly advancing technologies and accommodate growing consumer demand.
We need look no further than Europe for a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of regulation. Even Europe’s chief telecom regulator, Nellie Kroes, has expressed regret that outdated policies and government mandates have made it all but impossible for wireless innovators to make the necessary investments in building the kind of broadband infrastructure required to meet growing consumer demand. That approach, EU leaders have warned, is harming the continent’s connected competitiveness at a devastating time for its faltering economy.
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai recently raised a note of caution in testimony before Congress: “If the Commission starts picking and choosing who may participate in the forward auction … it will result in less participation, less revenue, less spectrum available for mobile broadband, and less funding for public safety.”
Time is of the essence in terms of our own government adopting a consistent and tech-forward stance. Fortunately, this challenge is front and center at the FCC. Recently named Interim FCC Chair Mignon Clyburn is a champion of the opportunities mobile Internet creates for all Americans. And fellow Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel recently told the National Association of Broadcasters that, “we live in a world that operates at Internet speed, and we need to move at that pace. There’s more we can do when it comes to deadlines, when it comes to resolving disputes.”
All Americans should echo the sense of urgency. Rather than press pause as the confirmation process proceeds, the entire nation has a stake in ensuring these critical efforts continue to upgrade our wireless web and the opportunities, innovations and competitiveness it brings to us all.