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Innovation in America: An Autobahn, or a Suburban Street With Speed Bumps?

My fear is that my son's future won't include the rapid pace of innovation that we have enjoyed in recent years. What if decades roll by and innovation stands still?
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When I was a child the innovations of the day included black-and-white televisions, copy machines and the first satellite, Sputnik. Truly groundbreaking innovation came once a year or even less frequently. But more recently, technological innovation has moved at the speed of light. In recent years I have witnessed the birth of the Internet, DVR, HDTV, Blu-ray, satellite radio and MP3, to name just a few.

The slow pace of innovation of my childhood is particularly stark to me given that I get to enjoy amazing new technological advances through the eyes of my own one-year-old child. Advances that took years in my youth will take weeks in his. My son's childhood will be filled with e-books, 3-D, GPS and more. I can't even imagine what astonishing technologies will be part of his life. But my fear is that his future won't include the rapid pace of innovation that we have enjoyed in recent years. What if decades roll by and innovation stands still?

Believe it or not, there is a crisis in the air - quite literally - that could threaten the innovation economy that is bringing our nation back from the brink. It is the current spectrum crisis - the impending exhaustion of our available wireless bandwidth - that threatens to halt innovation. If the current inefficient allocation and use of spectrum continues, I fear the millions of consumers demanding more robust connectivity will be left empty-handed.

I have had the opportunity during my 27-year tenure at the Consumer Electronics Association to see a limitless array of innovative new products come to market. I have stood on the show floor of the International CES and been blown away by ever-smaller and faster products that do things that were unimaginable only a few years ago. And over the past decade, what has been most obvious and spectacular to me is the trend toward limitless connectivity via spectrum.

Our products are no longer stand-alone electronics. Wireless no longer means battery-operated. Consumer electronics are amazing products, made incredible by their ability to connect anywhere and anytime.

Driven by spiraling consumer demand, next-generation devices allow us to work and play wirelessly and remotely. They can do things that just a year ago could only be done through a wired network. For many consumers, the voice capability on their phone is secondary to the ability to stream video from YouTube, listen to Pandora, or upload photos to Facebook. Many laptops today are not even sold with an Ethernet port - their only connectivity is via a wireless network.

These products power-up and begin to scan for a network. Over the past couple years, these networks have become ubiquitous. From the corner coffee shop to many cross-country flights, consumers are finding the networks that allow them anywhere/anytime connectivity and thus more freedom to live and work the way they want.

Throughout my career I have overcome many roadblocks on the way to seeing the anywhere/anytime principle come to fruition--from court cases in the 1980s advocating the rights of consumers to make home recordings, to the fight to ensure the success of the DTV transition.

I have fought to ensure the growth of innovation and mobility. Many of our victories over the years seemed to be the beginning of an open autobahn of connectivity and technology. I am still holding out hope that the spectrum autobahn is still possible and that innovation will not be thwarted.

As an industry we have fought to protect mobility from the moment it was threatened. And just as we are closing in on the ability to do absolutely everything on the go - audio, video, data, voice - I fear we are racing toward a brick wall. If we do not have enough spectrum allocated for wireless broadband, a brick wall will separate the United States from innovation.

The scarcity of spectrum threatens our national priorities and competitiveness. If our broadband networks can remain cutting edge it will allow consumers, businesses and public and private institutions to take full advantage of innovative new applications. From telework to telemedicine, this access will be life changing to Americans. We have always been the leader in innovation and in technology, but we are at risk of losing that coveted position.

There are swaths of inefficiently used spectrum that should be reclaimed and reallocated for use that best serves the public interest. And we must take the time to ensure that all policies for managing our spectrum are as efficient as the technology using it.

I don't believe all the answers are obvious yet. But I do believe before any decisions can be made an inventory must be taken of existing spectrum uses so that the future allocation of spectrum can be driven by facts, not rhetoric.

Times have changed. Innovation, as always, has sped forward. Our spectrum management must keep up, or the United States and its entrepreneurs, innovative companies, students, and consumers will be left in the dust, holding phones that are nothing more than fancy calculators with the potential to do more - if only the airwaves had room.

Gary Shapiro is the president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association.

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