The following op-ed was written and submitted Nov. 12, 2010.
Throughout my professional career, I have never seen an industry that has developed, matured and continued to innovate like the 27-year-old wireless industry.
Wireless devices and technology are so vital and commonplace today, but many people forget that this industry was launched in 1983 with the first cellular system in Chicago and the Motorola DynaTAC, aka "brick," which had one hour of talk time and eight hours of standby. We also seem to lose sight of other industry products and service innovations.
The first commercial text message was sent in 1992. The first "bucket" of minutes plan was offered in 1998. Camera phones were introduced in 2002. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the first major SMS/text message donation campaign was developed between the American Red Cross and CTIA-The Wireless Foundation. In 2008, iTunes and Android opened separate app stores and the mobile applications world was never the same.
I believe it's important to have this historical perspective to appreciate how far and fast the industry has come, while continuing to provide so much value for Americans.
Facts are instrumental in helping us with this. According to CTIA's latest semi-annual survey released at our fall show, there are almost 293 million wireless subscriber connections, which translate to a 93 percent penetration rate. Almost 25 percent of American households are wireless-only. U.S. customers can choose from more than 630 unique handsets that are manufactured by more than 33 different companies. Consumers sent and received more than 1.81 trillion SMS/text messages in 2009. Wireless customers can choose from a variety of "bucket" plans for voice, text or data usage and our service plans have been emulated by providers in other countries. Not only do many devices offer camera and video capabilities, but an increasing number of them provide wireless Internet access and built-in MP3 players.
We have also seen the development and rise of tablets, netbooks and e-readers. As of mid-November, there were more than seven app stores and almost 500,000 apps available. Wireless is also positively changing our social behavior. In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a record-breaking $35 million was donated via text message.
When this industry started in 1983, it was a convenience for executives. Now, wireless products and services are nearly ubiquitous and affordable. In a recent Pew study on mobile access, 59 percent of adults in America access the Internet wirelessly. A separate Pew report found 21 percent of teens who would otherwise not have access to the Internet, use it on their mobile devices. Wireless service is truly a great opportunity for millions of Americans since it's available anywhere, anytime.
But we are at the proverbial fork in the road where what happens in 2011 can either continue to foster the tremendous growth of this industry or repress it. Specifically, I'm referring to net neutrality.
In the five years since this issue has been discussed, those in favor of government-regulated Internet have not been able to show a single example in the wireless market of any harm to consumers that would be addressed by proposed net neutrality rules. They also ignore the simple fact that wireless networks are different. Due to spectrum constraints and the mobility of our customers, providers must be able to constantly adapt, evolve and respond to their customers' changing wireless environments through reasonable network management so that all users enjoy the best possible wireless experience.
As President Clinton's FCC Chairman William Kennard said in a 2006 op-ed, "Policymakers should rise above the Net-neutrality debate and focus on what America truly requires from the Internet: getting affordable broadband access to those who need it." That was true then and it certainly should be true now.
CTIA's number one priority in 2011 will be to continue to educate the FCC and Congress on why net neutrality rules are unnecessary and would assuredly have a negative impact on an industry that is a strong economic bright spot in our country today.
Following closely behind on our list of priorities is our persistent focus on preventing the looming spectrum crisis. Spectrum is the backbone of this industry and is what fuels our "virtuous cycle" of innovation and competition. Without it, the applications, networks, devices and other aspects of the wireless ecosystem are in jeopardy.
Unlike other issues that are debated in Washington, spectrum is not a partisan issue. We're pleased that members from all parties and policymakers from Congress, FCC, NTIA and the Administration have agreed with us that we must make more spectrum available in order to meet the insatiable demands of consumers and businesses.
Despite the fact that CTIA's members are the most efficient spectrum users in the world and invest billions of dollars in network infrastructure every year, we cannot simply build our way out of the spectrum crisis.
In 2011, CTIA and our members will continue to advocate for the FCC's call in the National Broadband Plan for 500 MHz of spectrum within the next ten years for the wireless industry. We are also hopeful that the Radio Spectrum Inventory Act (S. 649; H.R. 3125) will get passed by Congress. Identifying who is using what spectrum is the first step in designating the valuable spectrum the wireless industry needs in order to continue meeting Americans' demand.
Equally important to the wireless industry are our consumer-focused issues. CTIA will remain dedicated to educating adults and teens about the dangers of texting while driving through our radio and TV PSAs as well as our website, onroadoffphone.org. We remind everyone that when they're on the road, safety must be their number one priority.
Our "Be Smart" campaign and its website (besmartwireless.org), which helps parents, educators, policymakers and teens discuss and learn about responsible wireless behavior, will remain a focus for us in 2011.
CTIA will also be emphasizing the important role wireless plays regarding our environment. While more than two-thirds of Americans are aware their mobile devices and accessories are recyclable, they are likely not as familiar with the countless ways that wireless helps to protect and positively affect the environment. We're seeing wireless improve efficiencies and effectiveness in other industries such as education, healthcare, transportation and energy. For example, from garbage trucks to school buses to farm equipment, dispatchers are able to wirelessly monitor and route the fleets in real-time, thereby saving millions of gallons of fuel and cutting thousands of tons of CO2 emissions every year.
Finally, we will continue our focus on the discriminatory taxes and fees that our wireless customers are forced to pay. Right now, the average wireless bill is taxed at 15 percent while other taxable goods and services are at about 7 percent. In Congress, there's a bipartisan bill (S. 1192; H.R. 1521) that would put a five-year moratorium on any new wireless taxes and fees. Since policymakers believe, and we agree, that affordable Internet is important, taxing our wireless customers at a higher rate certainly won't help to advance broadband adoption or deployment. This point is demonstrated clearly in a recent Centers for Disease Control study that showed nearly two-thirds of adults living in poverty or living near poverty are in wireless-only households. Targeting wireless customers with these taxes and fees is regressive and takes a toll on those who can least afford it.
To learn more about these and other issues, I encourage you to visit our website.
If it wasn't clear before, 2011 will be a busy year for our association and our members on policy matters. By continuing to educate policymakers at all levels of government on the fantastic wireless story, including the billions of dollars we inject into the economy through investments and jobs, I'm confident we'll be successful on these policy issues. Our industry looks forward to being able to continue pleasing American consumers by constantly innovating, competing and creating the amazing products and services that we have all come to expect.
It's been a great 2010, but I'm confident it will be an even better 2011!
Steve Largent is president and CEO of CTIA-The Wireless Association.