Las Vegas and Washington are worlds apart. But some, myself included, are midway between CES in the West and inauguration-related activities in the East. It’s hard not to note a stark contrast: While folks in D.C. are deeply divided, the estimated 175,000 CES attendees ogling all the innovation in Vegas were united and excited about what’s next.
At the consumer electronics show, there was no shortage of awe-inspiring televisions and tablets, cars and gaming systems. But this year’s most dazzling shiny objects belonged to the field of ambient intelligence — the growing knowledge and anticipation of our needs by virtually every “thing” in our homes and other environments.
The belle of this year’s ball was Amazon’s Alexa, with a bevy of devices from competitors like Samsung, Microsoft and Google in hot pursuit. All are seeking to capitalize on advances in voice-recognition technology that allow gadgets to leapfrog complex interfaces and do the bidding of their consumer directly via voice commands. According to research firm Tractica, 40 million homes will include such voice-activated digital assistants within the next four years.
As more cohesive standards emerge, these mobile mini-me’s will ride herd over a virtual army of intelligent “things” — from mattresses that automatically adjust when they “hear” snoring, to refrigerators that can tell you when your milk is expired, saving cereal eaters everywhere from the grim task of “does this taste funny” roulette. Virtually every manner of household device was connected and on display at this year’s show. By 2022, some forecast the average home may include as many as 500 connected items, from home security sensors to major appliances.
What makes it all possible? Innovators and entrepreneurs pushing out their progress over strong, ubiquitous wireless networks. As a serial entrepreneur who resides in Columbia Falls, Mont., (population: 4,796) I’ve witnessed over and over again how robust wireless networks allow anyone with a smartphone and a great idea to be a successful entrepreneur and bring jobs and opportunities home to their communities.
This links all the promise and potential of the Internet of Things directly to the current national policy conversation on infrastructure. Other countries are racing ahead with 5G infrastructure, as are U.S. wireless leaders. Indeed, since 2011, wireless companies have invested almost $150 billion in our nation’s mobile infrastructure. But the rate of spending in recent years has been relatively flat, due in no small part to a spike in new and proposed wireless regulations.
Unlike Alexa, the real-world use-case for these added rules has remained murky at best and patently anti-consumer at worst. The high-handed and partisan decision by the Federal Communications Commission in 2015 to treat broadband networks — including consumers’ wireless service — as regulated utilities is a poster-child for fresh policy thinking (and quick, constructive action) in the context of a new administration and Congress.
On Jan. 20, we will hear President Donald Trump’s vision for the next four years. We know from his election night address that infrastructure is a priority. Hopefully this will include not only bridges and roads that have fallen into disrepair, but also broadband networks that can propel our nation and its innovation economy forward. The consumer mandate is clear — robust, connectivity everywhere. All eyes and ears are now on Washington to see if they are heard.
Diane Smith is a board advisor to Mobile Future. She is an attorney, entrepreneur and author who has worked on the launch of competitive long distance, mobile and IPTV industries.
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