Opinion

Don’t Let Big Cable Limit Consumer Choices 

The frenzied anticipation and wall-to-wall news coverage surrounding Apple’s announcement of a new iPhone last week was another stark reminder of how hooked American consumers are on mobile devices.  Whether they’re streaming videos, shopping online or working, consumers love the freedom wireless Internet connectivity affords them. But that freedom is based on exceedingly limited supply of spectrum, and new creative ways to use spectrum could be sabotaged by cable companies if they have their way.

If you’re reading this now, chances are that you’re reading it on your smartphone considering average smartphone usage nearly doubled last year alone, and it’s only expected to grow. As a result, wireless technologies are upending long-held business practices and creating entirely new industries like the apps we covet, wireless fitness trackers we use, and now even multiple affordable, on-demand car services. In doing so, the mobile age has improved how consumers and businesses interact. No longer is it a static transaction, but rather an ongoing, dynamic relationship.

This remarkable progress can by stymied by capacity constraints and availability of wireless spectrum. Spectrum is the foundation of wireless mobility. Spectrum is used to transmit all that data we send back and forth from our mobile devices. Unfortunately, it’s a limited resource that could be severely strained and thereby hinder consumers’ mobile experience if more of it is not made available for commercial use.

While policymakers and regulators must continue to explore ways to free-up more spectrum, tech companies are developing new technologies that will enhance the consumer wireless experience by creating faster, more reliable connections. That’s exactly what a new technology called LTE-Unlicensed or LTE-U could do. LTE-U carefully utilizes unlicensed spectrum – an open platform of innovation shared by many – to improve the wireless experience for consumers.

Unlicensed spectrum was designated by regulators to be open and available for use for everyone to innovate, experiment and develop new technologies. Unlicensed spectrum is a tremendous consumer success story as it is used for variety of things like Wi-Fi, wireless microphones, and even baby monitors. LTE-U similarly was designed to use unlicensed spectrum – with licensed spectrum – to provide a superior service for wireless consumers. It was engineered to not interfere with Wi-Fi or other popular unlicensed spectrum services.  But even though LTE-U will work alongside Wi-Fi well, it’s time to start thinking beyond Wi-Fi, as we have all experienced its shortcomings in crowded settings.

Unfortunately, since major cable business interests have claimed a near monopoly on Wi-Fi, they are trying to use their entrenched influence in Washington, D.C. to stop new technologies like LTE-U by making unfounded accusations and asking regulators to intervene and stall its development.

The cable companies’ arguments against LTE-U shows that they are actively working to stop new technologies and competition at the expense of consumers. We believe that consumers deserve more choices and the freedom to pick the technology that best meets their needs. But big cable is acting like a playground bully who does not want to share anything with anyone because they hate to compete.

Simply put, cable companies should not stand in the way of new technologies like LTE-U that could provide consumers a better mobile experience. Unlicensed spectrum is just that – unlicensed, unencumbered, and open for new creative ideas that benefit the public. And it should stay that way.

John Celock is the Executive Director of 21st Century Consumers, an advocacy organization focused on the interests of consumers using emerging technologies for goods and services.

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