April 17, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
As the coronavirus pandemic lays siege to everyday life, mobile technology is helping to keep society connected and is saving lives. That is no overstatement.
The virus threatens to overcome governments’ capacity in many cases, but our mobile technology ecosystem is functioning well. Over 100 million people are working remotely, millions of kids are discovering “distance learning” (often to their chagrin), and people with health questions are using telemedicine to get quick answers, while everyone is using mobile apps like Zoom to keep spirits up.
At the same time, the crisis has further exposed some critical vulnerabilities. Not everyone has access to reliable broadband, and the “digital divide” in this country is disproportionately leaving rural and low-income Americans behind. Those issues of access are dire enough. But imagine the disaster that would occur if, on top of these deficiencies, we were to self-inflict yet more harm on our digital society and safety net.
A looming patent fight provides an unsettling illustration of how this could happen. The U.S. International Trade Commission is actually considering whether to order an import ban on the vast majority of smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices that Americans rely on every day. Neodron, a company just set up in Ireland, says devices made by Amazon, Microsoft, Samsung and other industry leaders infringe on some patents it acquired for touchscreen technology.
Now, imagine if Neodron had petitioned the ITC a year earlier and an import ban had gone into effect last fall. By now, with the pandemic raging, consumers, first responders, students, health care providers and anyone engaged in online commerce could have found that the devices they need were inadequate, unavailable or priced out of reach.
Consider the potentially enormous impact of this (as you likely read this on your smartphone). Our mobile infrastructure has been a first line of defense against the virus. Remote check-ups for routine health maintenance and flu screenings have reduced risks of exposure for health care professionals and helped conserve gloves, masks and other resources experts predict could be in short supply as the number of COVID-19 victims rises. Meanwhile, many people suffering from mental health challenges are getting through an unimaginably hard ordeal with the help of apps that allow for remote therapy sessions.
Mobile technology is likewise helping us to “flatten the curve” and mitigate economic damage. Three-quarters of all Americans have now been ordered to stay at home and millions of businesses are shuttered, so most economic activity is taking place online. The success of teleworking and home shopping depend on new applications and dependable, affordable devices.
And with most schools closed, it is as if the entire country is suddenly having a three-month snow day. The conversion to online education is all that will salvage the academic year for students from pre-K to graduate school.
Mobile technology could even be integral to the maintenance of democracy as public officials and tech companies scramble for secure online voting options just six months from now.
Public and private sector leaders understand how critical a role mobile technology plays in keeping our economy afloat and our people safe. New YorkGov. Andrew Cuomo has directed state-regulated insurers to waive copays for telehealth visits to encourage more people to seek care from their homes. And Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has issued an executive order to provide state workers with telehealth services, expanding their health benefits to include licensed telehealth providers.
Hundreds of internet and phone service providers have agreed to be flexible with customers who cannot pay their bills. They’ve signed onto a pledge initiated by the Federal Communications Commission to Keep Americans Connected. Policymakers are looking at cutting through red tape to allow people to use SNAP benefits to pay for food online. Everywhere you look, technology is playing a critical role in managing this unprecedented crisis.
Innovation, market competition, and forward-looking investment gave us the tools to survive this crisis and eventually thrive again. An import ban sought by a single, non-productive company could jeopardize this historic mobilization of technology, leaving people without the technology tools they need to weather the storm.We need to galvanize every resource to be sure we can be resilient and adapt effectively to this emergency. That means making sure that companies like Neodron cannot leave us all empty-handed.
Gerard Scimeca is an attorney and co-founder of Consumer Action for a Strong Economy, a free-market oriented consumer advocacy organization.
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