If you want to understand the stakes over the escalating calls to increase the radio spectrum available for consumer wireless use, check out what AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said this week, first in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) and later at an open forum at the Brookings Institute.
In both venues, Stephenson explained the wireless industry’s dynamism and how the U.S. has become the global “hot spot” for mobile apps and platforms. In the process, he offered a timely reminder of how thoroughly wireless has changed, and has changed our lives. (Can it really be that Apple’s mobile app store is less than four years old?!)
If anything, Stephenson was too measured. Federal policymaking is unnecessarily risking our mobile economy. Worse, if federal officials don’t act to resolve this problem, our current economic growth in the mobile economy could greatly diminish.
What to do? Stephenson provided three good suggestions:
1) Clear out regulatory underbrush, especially at the local level, that delays new deployment. Communications is a national service, and wireless deployment is expensive ($25+ billion in capex last year) without the added costs of navigating a maze of local rules and red tape.
A few years ago, several states enacted similar legislation to speed the delivery of TV service over high-speed phone lines. The result: More choices for TV viewers.
2) The federal government should facilitate transfers of wireless spectrum among the industry companies. This is clear cut free-enterprise: The most efficient wireless carriers will place the highest value on spectrum, and will put it to use quickly. The feds shouldn’t interfere with the market working the way it is meant to work.
3) This is a big one — stop letting companies with no interest in deploying wireless game the system. Here’s what’s happening: A company can win a bid on a spectrum license, do nothing for several years and then flip it for a tidy profit.
But that kind of thing hurts competitiveness and investment. It’s strictly a “fast buck” abuse of the system, with taxpayers and mobile users the ultimate losers.
The federal government hasn’t increased the amount of spectrum available for mobile users since 2008. Officials predict that if nothing’s done, the public’s demand will exceed our capacity by 2013. (For a good chart, click here.)
As a CNN headline earlier this year put it, “Sorry America, Your Wireless Airwaves Are Full.”
It’s past time to address this looming problem. Bravo to Stephenson offering possible solutions.