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Diane Smith: Wireless: Connecting rural communities

Every morning as I head out the door, I engage in the universal "pat down" to ensure my trusted mobile phone made it into my purse. This daily routine shows just how much mobile services have changed the way we work, do business, stay connected and embrace innovations that expand our economy and improve our lives.

And nowhere is the promise of the mobile Internet -- and the next-generation networks that make it possible --more apparent than in rural communities. Mobile connectivity gives businesses virtually anywhere the opportunity to compete and succeed.

As an entrepreneur in Montana, I have seen first-hand how transitioning to next-generation networks and wireless technologies can help Americans living in rural communities more fully participate in the mobile revolution. Mobile technology has been my passport to business success. I started a technology company using a wifi connection in my local coffee shop and raised the money to do it from my cell phone. Because of the communications infrastructure available to me, I was able to grow and run my business where I wanted while keeping my finger on the pulse of my urban competitors.

But my story isn't as unlikely as it might seem. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 99 percent of Americans live in counties where wireless service is available and 95 percent of the population has access to three or more competing wireless providers. And these numbers are only increasing.

Carriers of all sizes are working relentlessly to deploy service far and wide, focusing a great deal of time and money upgrading networks to provide customers with robust service options. In the last year alone, wireless companies invested more than $20 billion in infrastructure. Capacity is growing, and advanced networks are expanding into all corners of the country.

With billions of dollars invested to deploy wireless networks each year, no technology has come so far, so fast as mobile connectivity. Today, there are more mobile subscriptions than people in our country. And, by 2016, Cisco forecasts there will be nine networked devices for every man, woman and child.

This rapid pace of progress is unquestionably positive for our economy. But, the blistering evolution and demand for wireless connectively is straining the airwaves that fuel our mobile ecosystem. Today's smartphones on average generate 35 times more mobile data traffic than basic feature phones. That tablet in your hand? It burns through 121 times more wireless capacity than your smartphone.

Just recently, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski discussed the looming spectrum crunch explaining that U.S. mobile data traffic grew almost 300 percent last year, and traffic is projected to grow an additional 16-fold within the next four years driven by consumers using the newest smart phones and tablets.

With U.S. mobile networks already operating at 80 percent of capacity, compared to a global average of just 65 percent, it's no surprise that the FCC is now warning that demand for mobile Internet may overwhelm existing capacity as early as next year.

Important ideas are now advancing to make sure this capacity is repurposed to its most critical modern use- expanding the mobile Internet. The FCC is advancing plans for voluntary incentive auctions that allow broadcasters to put their spectrum up for auction and share the proceeds with the U.S. Treasury. And, leaders on Capitol Hill are looking at how more efficient spectrum use by government agencies can unlock greater expansion of the mobile Internet for the broad benefit of all Americans and the economy.

If the federal government can move quickly (I know, I know, stop laughing) to keep pace with consumer demand and fast evolving technologies, West Virginia would benefit in a variety of ways. More capacity would be available to expand wireless connectivity. And, this creates whole waves of opportunity. Nearly two thirds of small business owners, for example, say they couldn't survive without wireless technologies. Given that the majority of U.S. jobs are created by new businesses that are less than five years old, that mobile connection is critical to the 7.5 percent of West Virginia who are looking for work. Distance health care and learning opportunities-key to rural life- also are increasingly conducted via connected mobile devices.

As rural Americans embrace and increasingly rely on next generation networks and technologies, maintaining policies that encourage continued investment in advanced networks and allocating more spectrum to expand the mobile Internet must be among the nation's highest technology and economic priorities. It's time our nation's leaders answered the call for sound policy and timely action to keep the mobile future on a positive growth trajectory for us all.

Smith serves on the board of Mobile Future (mobilefuture.org) and was co-founder and chief executive officer of Auroras Entertainment, an IPTV and advanced media services company in Kalispell, Montana.


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