Monday marked the 20th anniversary of President Bill Clinton signing into law the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which still governs how we talk, text and connect today — increasingly over our smart devices.
At the time, the call for change was backed by the rallying cry that “it’s time for the laws to catch up with our lives.” The same can be said today. Then, cabinet-sized supercomputers were the sole purview of elite corporate research centers and universities. Now the masses routinely hold this processing power in the palms of our hands.
Then, 16 percent of U.S. adults had a cellphone primarily for voice calls (their owners placed about six texts a year). And just 20 million of us had rudimentary Internet access that honked and screeched at the onset of each connection. Now, Bernie Sanders is Snapchatting.
As the nation prepares to pick its next President and Congress, the world has been transformed by wireless connectivity. This year, a majority of U.S. households will be wireless-only for voice calls. One in six already are for Internet, too. Today’s typical American home has more than five wireless connections — a figure poised for exponential growth as the Internet of Things connects the vehicles in our driveways, appliances in our homes, health devices on and in our bodies, and more.
Good thing, then, that the U.S. leads the world in 4G network investment and consumer connections. And 5G networks are on the horizon to address the skyrocketing growth of mobile video and consumers embracing these new opportunities outside of their traditional silos.
But the successes of our past are no guarantee of our future. With global rivals moving aggressively to unseat us in the race to 5G, our world-leading progress must not only continue but accelerate. Essential to our success is a constructive policy framework that does its level best to steer clear of divisive politics and stay true to allowing the vision of American innovators — and the choices of U.S. consumers — to advance and indeed speed the virtuous cycle of more investment, more innovation and more progress for our nation.
Our policymakers have faltered in this respect over the past year. The Federal Communications Commission’s partisan decision last January to impose rotary phone regulations on the new world of 1’s and 0’s was astonishingly regressive — and is currently being reviewed in court. The FCC’s vote last month to “double down” on a more regulatory path by declaring broadband insufficiently deployed in the U.S. further detaches from reality. The move was premised on its new and self-servingly narrow definition of “broadband” as services offering download speeds five times faster than what Netflix says is necessary to stream HD-quality video.
These regulatory escalations fly in the face of consumers’ day-to-day experience and the world-leading $1.4 trillion our innovation companies have invested in continually better U.S. broadband — wired and wireless — over the past two decades. They also run counter to the bipartisan principle at the core of the 96 Act: when it comes to pro-consumer innovation policy, government often acts best when it acts least.
It’s the wrong direction at a pivotal moment when wireless and broadband technologies are delivering so much for our economy and quality of life for all our citizens — especially those who have been left out or left behind.
One example: According to a recent survey of the best U.S. jobs (as defined by salary, demand and advancement opportunity), “mobile developer” ranked in the top five with an average pay of $90,000 per year. These are opportunities — one among so many —that scarcely existed in our economy 20 years ago.
How does our next set of leaders maximize the potential on the road ahead? In a word: Smartly. The best solutions will be found not in rigid rules that technology’s rapid progress render obsolete. They will be found instead in more collaborative and nimble approaches that recognize the intrinsic limitations of government and the overwhelmingly positive benefits that rapid innovation brings to all our communities.
The progress to date has been astounding, and we have only just begun. The wireless economy is too smart to fail. Our nation deserves equally smart policy that encourages its continued success.