Obama's choice: Regulator or Innovator

Obama’s recent oratory echoes Roosevelt’s call for a “square deal” for all Americans. “I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules,” Obama recently said on the stump in Kansas. “These aren’t Democratic values or Republican values. These aren’t 1 percent values or 99 percent values. They’re American values. And we have to reclaim them.”

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The words ring true to our times. After a year in which Time magazine christened “the protester” its Person of the Year, it is imperative that our leaders give voice to the frustrations of the people. Equally important, our leaders must give hope.

For that reason, our President would do well to look to a modern-day role model. From free trade to technology, the environment to the economy, President Clinton didn't play to the left or vilify the right. He brought the country together in the middle and presided over nearly a decade of economic expansion—116 months of consecutive growth, the most in U.S. history.

President Clinton understood the federal government’s importance—and its limitations. The “hands-off” approach that he and a Democratic-led Congress took in the infancy of the Internet and the wireless world sped profound benefits to our economy and society. From education to health care, social connectivity to civic engagement, we are all the beneficiaries of that rare restraint.

During the Clinton Administration, more than 22.5 million American jobs were created, the most in any presidency. It was also a heyday for innovation. The number of households with a computer more than doubled. People connected to the Internet increased 20-fold and technology patent applications increased 40%.

Yes, there was a tech bubble that burst to correct those early heady days of stratospheric IPOs. But there is no doubt today in the land of Facebook, Apple, Google and others that information technology is the central hub of our nation’s economy—and our greatest hope for renewed growth and job creation.

President Obama, at times, has mirrored the Clintonian model of leadership. In calling for a review of federal regulations, he expressed concern that some rules “have stifled innovation and have had a chilling effect on growth and jobs.”

Similarly, his choice for Federal Communications Commission Chairman, Julius Genachowski, a veteran of successful technology ventures vowed to transform the 77-year-old regulatory body into a “a 21st century agency for the information age.”

One key area in which both have succeeded is recognizing the increasingly vital role of mobile technology. In a country where smartphones now outsell PCs and more Americans may go online via mobile than wired Internet connections as early as 2014, Obama has shown a nuanced understanding of the opportunities—and infrastructure challenges—this shift presents.

In last year’s State of the Union address, he called for near-universal mobile connectivity. We’re almost there. According to the FCC, 92% of Americans have access to the web wirelessly, and it’s helping close the digital divide. African Americans and Hispanics lead in smartphone adoption and mobile Internet use.

Today’s wireless ecosystem is far from Roosevelt's world of one company, one industry. A full 82% of us have at least three choices for our mobile Internet service. Six providers are now racing to deploy advanced 4G services in the U.S. And, U.S. consumers enjoy among the lowest per-minute prices in the world. This is a thriving sector of our innovation economy not because the government says so—but because the market is healthy and highly competitive.

Where do we go from here? We support continued rapid growth of a mobile ecosystem that is creating jobs and improving lives. Chairman Genachowski rightly warned of a “looming spectrum crisis.” U.S. demand for mobile Internet could outstrip capacity in as little as two years.i If President Obama delivers on his call to shift 500 Mhz of spectrum to expand the mobile web, it could help win the hearts of the 91% of Americans who are so connected to our mobile devices that we sleep with them within arm’s reach. The move also would enable the private sector to create 500,000 jobs throughout our economy and add $400 billion to our GDP.

What does it take? Technology-savvy leadership. A consistent policy vision that continually pulls in a constructive direction. And, a clear-eyed choice of humility over hubris when it comes to the role of government in our innovation policy.

Current FCC nominee Jessica Rosenworcel elegantly stated this philosophy in her recent Capitol Hill testimony. With technology, "laws and regulations struggle to keep up,” she said. “I believe that a little humility helps."

Rather than follow the path of “the great regulator,” President Obama should blaze a trail that resonates for every American with a mobile device and a retirement account. He should remind us that we can grow our economy, lead in innovation and protect consumers. Success will “keep hope alive.” It also will bring the country together behind a rallying cry that is all Obama—“yes we can.”

Jonathan Spalter, chairman of Mobile Future (www.mobilefuture.org), has been founding CEO of leading technology, media, and research companies, including Public Insight, Snocap, and Atmedica Worldwide. He served in the Clinton Administration as a director on the National Security Council.

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