Opinion

Wireless Spectrum is a Priority for African Americans

Wireless technology is vital to the African American community for many aspects of our personal and professional lives. Over the years, wireless service became the primary means of daily communication for many African Americans, and mobile broadband evolved into an increasingly essential gateway to the Internet. Pew Research Center findings reveal that 92 percent of African Americans own a cell phone, with more owning smartphones (56 percent) than whites (53 percent). Cell phones, smartphones and other wireless devices are largely responsible for bridging the longstanding “digital divide” in Internet access between whites and African Americans.

Wireless also opens doors to entrepreneurial opportunities that didn’t exist just a few short years ago, providing a game-changing boost to African American innovators and small businesses like the ones the National Black Chamber of Commerce represents. According to The Boston Consulting Group, small businesses that incorporate mobile are witnessing exponential growth in revenues (2X) and work forces (8X) compared to their competitors that don’t engage with this technology. And this growth is just the beginning.  The Progressive Policy Institute estimates that the “app economy,” which didn’t even exist just eight years ago, was responsible for 752,000 jobs as of 2013. What’s more, 78 percent of U.S. mobile app companies are small businesses.

The cornerstone that makes all of these ground-breaking services, innovations and opportunities possible is the invisible infrastructure of electromagnetic airwaves used to transfer communications data, known as spectrum. Without it, wireless would not exist.

Spectrum itself is a huge economic driver in this country. A study by the Brattle Group found that the licensed spectrum used for wireless networks is responsible for more than $400 billion annually in the U.S. economy, not including benefits from new innovations in education, healthcare and transportation.

However, spectrum is a finite resource in short supply as wireless data demand continues to rise dramatically. New wireless industry analysis based on Cisco and Ericsson findings reveal that mobile data traffic will increase six times between 2014 and 2019 – boosted by more wireless consumers, apps and services. The spike in traffic and usage could result in a “spectrum deficit,” leaving networks stretched beyond capacity. This is a very critical issue for African American consumers and entrepreneurs, whose reliance on wireless will only continue to increase.

The FCC addressed this issue in the 2010 National Broadband Plan, which called for 300 MHz of spectrum to be available for licensed wireless use by 2015. This same plan underscored the need to get more minorities connected to the Internet. Without the much-needed licensed spectrum the FCC called for, African Americans and other minorities could be left offline in an increasingly online world. Unfortunately, we are behind on the goal for this year – much less five years from now. The latest estimates from the Brattle Group reveal that the U.S. now needs more than 350 MHz of additional licensed wireless spectrum by the end of the decade just to keep up with demand. And this doesn’t account for future needs in decades to come. The looming shortage is all the more troubling considering the fact that it takes an average of 13 years to reallocate spectrum for wireless use, according to CTIA.

Lawmakers in Washington, D.C. must make it a priority to guarantee that an ongoing pipeline of licensed spectrum is made available to meet the growing needs of African American communities and entrepreneurs that we represent, as well as all Americans.

 

Harry C. Alford is the president and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.

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