Policymakers need to make mobile technology a priority

editor's corner

D.C. politicians, politicos and wonks give considerable breath to the need for a more connected United States, but it often seems that they focus on wired rather than wireless technologies. This always shocks me because it seems so clear that the future is in mobility.

This week yet another study came out that supports the view that mobile, not wired, is the key to bridging the digital divide and enabling more people to access the Internet. The Hispanic Institute and Mobile Future published a report noting that Hispanics in the United States are 17 percent more likely than non-Hispanic whites to use mobile phones to access the Internet and 20 percent more likely to watch video on mobile phones. Young Hispanics have spent more than $500 million on mobile apps this year alone, the report added.

"Mobile broadband is essential for the economic advancement of Hispanics," said Gus West, chairman of The Hispanic Institute. "In today's information age, the Hispanic community relies on mobile devices to stay connected for so many aspects of their lives--to do everything from interacting with public officials to paying bills to taking their prescriptions thanks to text-message reminders."

"Policymakers must consider Hispanics' reliance on mobile devices as they implement a national broadband policy. Making more wireless spectrum available, ending regressive taxes on broadband users and continuing to support the Lifeline/Link-Up programs--which offer discounts to qualified, low-income wireless customers--are all key to this effort," said The Hispanic Institute.

One of the arguments I've frequently heard cited by those who support wired broadband over wireless is that the former is capable of much greater speeds and, therefore, will be more valuable to end users over time. That argument neglects the fact that there may be better wired alternatives sometime in the future, which would require the tearing out and replacing of all that beloved fiber its aficionados want to string across the United States.

I doubt the boosters of wired broadband would likewise argue that all, or certain segments, of society should be encouraged to use only landline telephones due to the increased reliability inherent in wired technology. Consider the Lifeline government benefit program, which is supported by the FCC's Universal Service Fund and provides a discount on phone service for qualifying low-income consumers because the government realizes that access to telephone service is essential for finding a job, connecting with family or getting help in an emergency. Lifeline funds both landline and wireless service because it's pretty obvious that someone who is down on their luck and needs to be reachable for, say, a job interview ought to have the option to receive crucial calls wherever they are.

The same ought to go for broadband access. If someone needs to check an email on their way to a job interview, update their LinkedIn profile or read up on the position they're interviewing to fill, it might be helpful to do that on the run as needed rather waiting to get home to a computer with a wired broadband connection.

I wrote back in March that mobile, not home, broadband is winning the people's hearts, and studies continue to confirm that view. If the U.S. government's goal with its National Broadband Plan is digital inclusion, then policymakers need to look at wireless as more than an option. They need to make the expansion of wireless broadband a priority.--Tammy