Americans are adopting broadband wireless devices faster than any other technology in history. The speed of this trend is transforming the American economy and way of life. It also poses a challenge to federal and state policymakers: How can we ensure that every American has access to the benefits of broadband wireless without breaking the bank or disrupting older technologies?
Fortunately, we have overcome this type of problem before, and we can do so again. The transition to digital TV is a perfect example.
As millions of Americans settle into their favorite chairs and watch the World Series and NFL games in sparkling, high-definition broadcasts, we’re enjoying a technological luxury that we take for granted. But we’d likely still be watching fuzzy, standard-definition images today had Congress not intervened in the years-long standoff between broadcasters and electronics manufacturers over how and when to innovate.
It’s a cautionary tale for tech companies and regulators alike. Since 1996, electronics companies were ready to start making high-definition TVs, but because broadcasters were reluctant to spend the money to upgrade their stations to “go digital,” manufacturers delayed production, fearing that no one would buy expensive new TVs if there was nothing new to watch. Broadcasters claimed that the investments would cripple their industry. It wasn’t until Congress enforced a “hard date” by which stations had to give up their old airwaves that broadcasters finally got out of the way of progress. And despite their “sky is falling” rhetoric, today broadcasters are faring just fine.
The Federal Communications Commission now faces a similar challenge as it works to increase wireless capacity and competition. The poster child may be new 4G-LTE wireless company LightSquared, which is facing heat from an industry that is resistant to adapting to a new technology in the airwaves next door to its own.
Like HDTV before it, 4G-LTE wireless holds incredible promise for consumers and device manufacturers alike. But today there is insufficient wireless capacity to support millions of 4G-LTE devices, and demand is rising ever faster. According to Cisco Systems, mobile traffic is expected to increase 26-fold by 2015. By then, the majority of Internet traffic will be via mobile devices, a reality unthinkable just two years ago.
That’s why LightSquared’s venture is significant. It would substantially increase America’s broadband wireless capacity while providing next-generation high-speed wireless data and voice to areas previously underserved. In addition, the company plans to market its nationwide network on a wholesale model, allowing any number of new competitors to enter the market. Many observers have hailed this proposal as a key part of President Barack Obama’s plan to increase high-speed Internet adoption nationwide while increasing competition in a consolidating wireless industry, all at zero cost to taxpayers thanks to a planned $25 billion investment by the company.
More competitors in the market will mean lower prices and better service for consumers along with expanded wireless broadband options — for example, purchasing wireless service directly from the retailer that sells you your smartphone. There are also economic benefits associated with building out a national network, including the creation of an estimated 15,000 jobs per year.
Public safety could be enhanced by LightSquared’s network as well, as the company has a long-standing relationship with emergency response agencies as a satellite communications provider. Its satellite-enabled push-to-talk phones are essential to fire, police, ambulance and disaster relief personnel and will be more readily available as part of a broadband wireless network.
As a regulator, I can fully appreciate the dilemma faced by the FCC in this particular case, as well as the overall issue of expanding the 4G network. Testing indicates that there is indeed a way to make certain that both interests can coexist. It is my hope that the FCC will resolve this issue expeditiously, and we can reap the benefits of the expanded 4G network from LightSquared and all the similar companies that will most certainly follow.
Orjiakor N. Isiogu is the outgoing chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission.