CES 2011 Proved One Thing to Be True: The Future Depends on Wireless

One word sums up the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that commenced last week in Las Vegas, showcasing the future of consumer technologies: Wireless. With devices of all shapes and sizes making their debut on the show floor, it was obvious to anyone walking the booths that the majority of the new products include a component of wireless technology. As our world becomes more and more reliant on new offerings that depend on mobile technology, it is important to remember that such products are only made possible by the “invisible infrastructure,” on which they depend, as FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski so properly phrased it during a speech at the show.

It sometimes becomes easy to forget the connection between public policy decisions, innovations in the labs, and end-user, consumer electronics that we buy in the store or purchase online. When thinking about the coolest new product for the holidays, for example, one does not think about where and why it was developed and how it is able to function. Over the past year, I have been actively engaged on Internet regulatory issues because of their significant impact on our everyday lives and the impact that such decisions could have on the enrichment potential of many Americans, particularly those living in underserved communities. I think that even policymakers themselves sometimes get lost in debates that don’t have tangible results, but that is precisely what was on display at CES last week.

All aspects of the technology industry converge at events such as CES, where attendees, decisions makers, the media and a variety of businesses and corporations get to prominently see the direction in which our digital society is moving.

While many didn’t attend the public policy panels taking place off the show floor (wouldn’t you rather be checking out LG’s newest “smart” appliances for the home, or testing out Motorola’s new Xoom tablet), those that did were able to connect Washington decisions to the broad technology industry, its explosive innovation and unending consumer offerings. 3D TVs continued to be featured, new smartphones were unveiled, most compatible for the commercial release of 4G networks coming this year from multiple providers, and front and center were the new tablets rolling out to compete with the ever-so-popular iPad.

The massive amount of products competing for consumer attention was apparent, and after seeing all of the new handsets, tablets, e-readers and devices being released this year, competition in the wireless industry is higher than ever, which is great news for consumers. First, you get more choices, more cool products being released that offer dynamic new capabilities, second, such competition should actually drive down the cost of both services and devices, such as smartphones. Providers are offering differing plans at lower costs, making access more affordable.  For someone who doesn’t even have a mobile device with Internet capabilities, but cannot afford to pay $30 per month for data, new plans are popping up as low as $15. That is half of the cost. Why?  Because all of the wireless companies are competing for our business, and in turn this creates new business offerings that help the consumer. To me, the more Americans who can afford to access mobile Internet, the better.  More access, means more opportunities, which translates into economic, social, healthcare, educational and many other paths to bettering oneself and fully engaging in society.

This continues to remain an issue with me because  as Pew data from 2010 found, African-Americans represent the community with the highest mobile broadband adoption rates. Many households don’t have hardware or broadband internet in the home, making wireless devices the primary means in which they connect to high-speed internet.  However, for all of these wireless capabilities, more Spectrum, what Genachowski refers to as the “invisible infrastructure” of the wireless Internet, needs to be unleashed. Luckily, I think this is a point on which many sides agree. The question becomes, how and in which way new Spectrum is made available, as our society increases demands for bandwidth running over wireless networks.

What alot of people don’t realize is that the wireless future is reliant on how Washington acts over the next year. Without smart policy decisions, the massive amounts of new consumer offerings as displayed on the CES show floor would not be possible. While new and upgraded network evolution is occurring – just look at all of the providers rolling out 4G networks, such as LTE and WIMAX in 2011 – sustainable use of mobile broadband is not possible without more Spectrum, in turn limiting the opportunities, innovation and tools provided by wireless technologies.