US wins gold in wireless competition

As the Winter Olympics winds to a close in Sochi, a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee is taking up this week the dynamic state of competition in the U.S. wireless sector.  By any metric—from record infrastructure investment, to the 22 U.S. providers offering 4G LTE service, to the variety of service plans, devices and providers American consumers have to choose from—even the Russian judges would have to admit ours is a gold-medal worthy performance.

Last week’s eye-popping news that Facebook will acquire free texting service What’s App for $19 billion is just the latest example of the creative disruption reshaping U.S. wireless.  The announcement is the latest reminder that new technology, service and business combinations can produce formidable new rivals—some with massive resources and scale—that can emerge, seemingly, in the blink of an eye. 

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In this environment, it is pure folly for anyone—and especially for government—to try and predict, much less shape, future market architecture.

But, as I will explain in my testimony before the subcommittee, there is a constructive and even vital role that government can and must play. While today’s mobile story is one of tremendous success and promise, there are real capacity issues on the horizon – specifically regarding the availability of electromagnetic spectrum needed to expand the mobile Internet. 

The time is now for policies that make additional spectrum resources available, so we are able to advance the mobile future from a posture of abundance versus a defensive crouch of scarcity. The upcoming spectrum auctions present a critical opportunity for American wireless consumers. By crafting an open auction design that encourages the broadest possible participation, millions of wireless subscribers will have access to additional spectrum. 

Today, nearly two-thirds of adult cell phone users use their devices to go online and over one-third go online mostly using their mobile devices instead of a desktop or laptop. What about tomorrow?  Just six short years after the iPhone was introduced, competition continues to fuel innovations that routinely remake the world anew. The ubiquity of smartphones and tablets cannot lull us into thinking we fully fathom what’s next in mobile.

The so-called “Internet of Things” is expected to encompass as many as 50 billion devices globally by 2020, accounting for nearly $1.9 trillion in economic value. It’s not the last—but certainly one of the next—exciting, inspiring breakthroughs in the competitive world of mobile.

What’s next? That depends on the appetite of consumers, the vision of mobile innovators and continued wise decisions by policymakers. To date, the U.S. government has relied substantially on restraint, simplicity and economy when it comes to policy engagement.  In no small measure because of this approach, our nation’s vibrant mobile ecosystem is the envy of the world.

In fast-moving technology development circles there is a term of art known as MVP—Minimal Viable Product.  It is the engineering and design principle that companies should bring to market products that have simple, minimally engineered attributes.  This way, customers are directly engaged in product development—providing a feedback loop that helps shape the items ongoing evolution. This principle has its policy corollary: Time and again, it is American consumers and their decisions in the marketplace, not overwrought government regulations that have guided U.S. mobile innovation to its globally competitive greatness today.

Whether we work in policy or innovation, our collective job is to help safeguard this consumer-driven marketplace and all the progress it is bringing to our nation’s economy and our quality of life.  In doing so, we lay a powerful foundation for generations of greatness that will help keep our nation on that top step of the podium.

Spalter, a technology executive and former senior federal government national security official, is chair of Mobile Future, a coalition of technology companies/stakeholders dedicated to increasing investment and innovation in the burgeoning U.S. wireless sector.