Washington loves anniversaries, and there’s one today - the Telecommunications Act became law on February 8, 1996. And as is often the case with such anniversary celebrations, we’ll likely see a slew of posts about the Act, pro and con. On the pro-side, it’s important to remember that the Act created the framework that governs the tower siting application process. With a little recent fine-tuning in the form of a shot clock order from the FCC, the Act’s siting framework has allowed us to increase the number of cell sites from just more than 24,000 in 1996 to more than a quarter of a million today, enabling better coverage for a subscriber base that has exploded from around 38 million in 1996 to more than 293 million today.
That’s good stuff, but otherwise, the Act really wasn’t that big a deal for the wireless industry. Instead, the critical spectrum allocations that have helped build today’s industry were made elsewhere, in budget bills passed in 1993, 1997 and 2005. And so rather than reflecting on what happened 15 years ago today, I hope folks will focus on where we need to go tomorrow.
So where do we need to go? As we’ve said for a long time now we need to focus on finding additional spectrum to meet the growing demand for wireless broadband services. Cell-splitting and efficiency gains are important, but insufficient to meet the explosive demand for ubiquitous access to high-speed mobile Internet connections. Three recent mobile traffic studies (from Cisco, Coda and the Yankee Group) suggest that mobile data traffic will increase from 2009 levels by a factor of five by the end of this year, more than 20 times by 2013 and by 35 times by 2014.
As my colleague Chris Guttman-McCabe pointed out in a recent post, this dynamic isn’t unique to the United States. We – the United States – need to make the allocation of additional spectrum for wireless broadband a national imperative if we want to remain competitive with our Asian and European trading partners, many of whom are ahead of us in bringing additional spectrum to market .
Bringing additional spectrum to market is priority one. It’s a win not only for the industry, but also for the government, which will derive revenue from auctions, and consumers, who will gain better, faster, more ubiquitous service.
At the same time, that’s not all that needs to be done. Government needs to refrain from regulation that restrains competition and innovation, and we need to fix a tax system that simply doesn’t make sense in the information-driven economy of the 21st century.
So while it may be worth noting that the Telecom Act is 15 today, let’s do it quickly. We have some serious work to do.