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Wireless: What You, Dick Tracy and Captain Kirk Have in Common | Commentary

The House Energy and Commerce Committee recently held a hearing on the government auction of spectrum — the fuel that brings us modern-day miracles such as the Internet, smartphones and other mobile devices, and the applications that ride over these networks. Additionally, the Senate Commerce Committee just held a “State of Wireline Communications” hearing. Unlike Congress’ many fishing expeditions, these separate but interconnected hearings are time well spent. Because while it is now a lively younger sibling to some cable and fiber technologies, mobile wireless is the future of pretty much everything we do.

The signs for this prophesy are a preference for mobility that consumers have demonstrated ever since they had the opportunity. Landline phones are gradually fading from the scene. Laptop sales have caught up with desktops, and the prediction is that tablets will take the lead by 2015. Otherwise competent humans spend time watching movies on mobile devices no larger than a pack of smokes. And so it ever was — Kirk didn’t ask Scotty to beam him up over a wired device, and the two-way wrist device Chester Gould gave Dick Tracy 80 years ago anticipated today’s ubiquitous wired world.

The rise of wireless is both fascinating and meaningful. In particular, it has important implications for the policies we create to govern the broadband Internet.

First, wireless is rapidly becoming an effective competitor to wired broadband, doing great damage to the idea that telecom companies and cable have created a duopoly that withholds innovation and slows the pace of broadband adoption. That doesn’t mean that mobile can deliver the same 100-megabyte speeds that wired access now offers to an impressive percent of American households. But it does mean that wireless can do most of the tasks people ask of their everyday service — shop, find things out, contact people, stream music and, increasingly, video (for wireless’s friend, satellite, the future is now) and most of the rest. It’s easy to imagine a world in which wireless is the basic connection device and wired is a specialty product for particular, often work-related applications.

According to research done by the Pew Internet & American Life Project in 2012, 82 percent of us use our mobile phones to take pictures, 56 percent to access the Internet, and half of us for email. Increasingly, we are using these most common mobile devices for important personal tasks: 31 percent of us use our phones to look for health information online, and 29 percent of us do some banking with our phones.

We must keep in mind that broadband technologies are rapidly changing and adoption rates are growing. Which leads to a second point — that making policy on the basis of today’s technology is a fool’s errand. The first iPhone was introduced six years ago — who then would have predicted the revolution it spawned? The first large-scale LTE (fourth-generation) system in the U.S. happened in 2010 — what will speeds look like three years from now? The occasional complaint that “mobile can’t do X” — whether X is high-definition video or remote learning or getting medical information and perhaps one day treatment — belies the reality that it often can and is rapidly getting better.

And that underscores a third point — markets work, and we second-guess them at our peril. Today, it’s hard to imagine how wireless would leave you unable to perform these functions on a tablet or phone.

And, more importantly, we’re going to see a steady stream of functions that are or were thought to be only available over a wired connection because that’s what people want. That’s what markets do — they guide innovation and business development to consumer needs. Wireless speeds are going to improve because consumers are giving companies that signal — and companies will respond because, as Willie Sutton reportedly said years ago about robbing banks, “that’s where the money is.”

As the administration and Federal Communications Commission think their way through various regulatory ideas — net neutrality, common carriage or restrictions on who can and can’t participate in new spectrum auctions — they should keep that lesson in mind. If we want to promote wireless innovation, then make more spectrum available, let those willing to pay for it buy it, and stand back and watch what happens.

Ev Ehrlich is a former undersecretary of Commerce in the Clinton administration, president of ESC Co. and a fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.