Alford: Wireless spectrum a priority for black community
Wireless technology is vital to the still-recovering American economy, helping fuel innovative technologies like connected cars made in Detroit and providing well-paying jobs. For the African American community, the impact is even more profound; it is the magic bullet that has helped bring consumers online without fixed broadband.
Yet without prompt attention from the U.S. Congress, including the leadership of House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Fred Upton and Senate Commerce Committee member Gary Peters much of today’s wireless access could soon sputter.
Over the years, wireless service has become the primary means of daily communication for many African-Americans, and mobile broadband has 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). These 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 even exist just a few short years ago, providing a boost to African-American innovators and small businesses. According to The Boston Consulting Group, small businesses that incorporate mobile are witnessing double growth in revenues and eight-times larger work forces compared to their competitors that don’t engage with this technology. The Progressive Policy Institute estimates that the “app economy,” still in its infancy, was responsible for 752,000 jobs as of 2013. What’s more, 78 percent of U.S. mobile app companies are small businesses.
The key variable that facilitates this is the invisible infrastructure of radio frequencies used to transfer communications data, known as spectrum. Without it, wireless would not exist. However, spectrum is a finite resource in short supply while wireless data demand continues to rise dramatically.
New wireless industry analysis reveals that mobile data traffic will increase six times between 2014 and 2019. 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 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) addressed this issue in the 2010 National Broadband Plan, which called for a flood of spectrum to be available for licensed wireless use by this year. This same plan underscored the need to get more minorities connected to the Internet. Unfortunately, we are already behind on the plan’s goals to bring spectrum to market — a process that takes an average of 13 years, according to CTIA.
Without the much-needed licensed spectrum the FCC called for, African Americans and other minorities could be left offline in an increasingly online world. That is, unless, Congress follows through with positive conversations to “refill the pipeline” by enticing the federal government, which owns as much as 70 percent of the useable spectrum, to sell unused airwaves to private providers.
As former Democratic FCC chairman Julius Genachowski and Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell recently wrote, “Congress needs to transfer some of that spectrum from federal to commercial use. That requires a comprehensive plan, which is crucial for maintaining the country’s momentum in wireless networks, devices and apps. Otherwise, investment, innovation, jobs and economic growth will suffer.”
Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., including Chairman Upton and Senator Peters, 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.