Don’t take mobile connectivity for granted

Palmer Schoening

Mobile devices continue to undergird most facets American society, from education to healthcare to business. They are pervasive — now used more widely than traditional means of reaching the Internet at home — and collectively they spur new technologies and economic output, including in Michigan.

Key for areas like Detroit, which create sectors and policies friendly to startups, mobile technology helps level the playing field for small businesses in competition with bigger rivals. Tools such as inventory and accounting management provide owners or operators real-time analytics and unprecedented control over their businesses from the palm of their hand. The effect is what many of us experience when checking a bank account or getting directions on our phone — increased efficiency.

Pervasive Internet access and its bottom line impact, however, must not be taken for granted. Serious hurdles exist that threaten ubiquitous connectivity and have serious potential to limit the supply of many of the most common and affordable mobile devices. This was particularly evident in a major trade case involving smartphone chip patents just settled at the International Trade Commission.

In that instance, Nvidia Corp. claimed that Samsung Electronics Co. and Qualcomm Inc. infringed on its patents with the chips used in popular smartphones and tablets. Nvidia wanted the ITC to issue an exclusion order for these products, which would have barred these products from entering the U.S.

The ITC’s initial determination could find no evidence of violation of the three patents in question, one of which was deemed invalid. Nearly two months later, the ITC upheld the findings and cleared Samsung and Qualcomm, though Nvidia promises to appeal.

This is a win for American consumers, but the efforts of Nvidia set a dangerous precedent.

Had Nvidia succeeded, the pain would extend beyond Samsung and Qualcomm. For instance, today’s education is not confined to the walls of classrooms. The Federal Communications Commission reports 7 in 10 teachers assign homework requiring Internet access, yet in many communities, only 1 in 3 students have broadband at home. In many homes, mobile access fills the gap.

They remain at risk in the event of a Nvidia copycat taking a case to the ITC when it belongs in court.

More broadly, Android is the most popular smartphone operating system in the U.S. and globally. Because Samsung manufactures more than 6 in 10 Android smartphones sold in the U.S., barring the sale of these products would hurt the economy tremendously. Infringement claims should be negotiated in a courtroom or boardroom — versus petitioning the ITC for an exclusion order, the agency’s only recourse as it cannot award financial damages.

The mobile Internet has become a staple in our schools, businesses, and palms of all ages. Needlessly limiting connectivity would hinder the progress and connectivity these technologies have contributed to so many facets of life and commerce. We should all hope that the decision from the ITC is made permanent and that this does not become a trend. There is too much at stake.

Palmer Schoening is chairman of the Family Business Coalition in Washington.