Congress Can Fuel Tech Growth

TechCrunch’s Disrupt SF 2015 put the ingenuity of some of the world’s top budding startups on full display in San Francisco. Allison Kopf, CEO of Agrilyst — an intelligence platform for indoor farms — took home the coveted “Disrupt Cup.”

The honor put Kopf’s company in the same echelon of innovators as companies like Mint, Dropbox, Getaround and Soluto, all real-life examples of the information economy now well understood in California. While companies like Agrilyst remind us about the value of new and innovative mobile technologies, they also make us think about the future — and endless possibilities.

But thoughts of the future currently present an unfortunate reality: U.S. wireless networks and the companies that rely on world-class connectivity could experience stagnation or decline due to a shortage of spectrum. Without prompt action from lawmakers and regulators, much of what fuels a critical segment of the U.S. economy — especially tech-savvy California — is at risk.

Spectrum, for those who are unfamiliar, are the radio frequencies that allow us to operate wirelessly; frequencies that carry all the data we have at our disposal when using smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices like watches or toys. While it’s out of sight, it can’t be out of mind — especially since there is a fixed amount of it and consumer demand for mobile data is going nowhere but up.

Whether it’s a sensor in a greenhouse or an app to stream TV shows, America is home to a fast-growing number of data-hungry wireless products and technologies. In a report released earlier this year, Cisco predicted that mobile data traffic worldwide will grow 10-fold between 2014 and 2019, and nearly three-fourths of the traffic will be video. The U.S. will no doubt be a driver of that growth, as mobile devices have become so ingrained in our lives that many Americans view them as indispensable.

For small business owners, mobile technology plays a critical role in the operations and growth of their business. According to a 2014 SBE Council Small Business Technology Poll, more than half of small businesses say they use mobile applications, with 91 percent saying it helps them save time and two-thirds indicating that it saves them money. The majority of those businesses estimate they are saving up to $500 a month — or $6,000 per year — by using mobile apps.

Wireless is clearly thriving. Unfortunately, there currently is not enough spectrum to meet projected consumer demand. Research by CTIA – The Wireless Association concluded the U.S. will need to increase its supply by more than 50 percent. Because spectrum can’t be created, it has to come from somewhere. That somewhere could be the federal government. Estimates suggest that agencies hold as much as 70 percent of the spectrum that is suitable for commercial mobile use. The next step lays with Congress.

Without a sufficient amount of spectrum, networks will become congested.

Fortunately, Congress already recognizes its role in the process and recently held multiple hearings to review proposed legislation to free up more spectrum. This included a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Doris Matsui that “will provide financial incentives to encourage government agencies to relocate from their existing spectrum bands in order to free up additional spectrum for commercial and innovation purposes.” Legislators also discussed a new bill that calls on the Federal Communications Commission to “submit to Congress reports containing plans for the auction of certain bands of spectrum frequencies.”

Reallocation will be a time-consuming process, but it will be worth it. Without a sufficient amount of spectrum, networks will become congested. That will lead to frustrated consumers and business owners, as well as potentially missed business opportunities.

One of the major takeaways from Disrupt SF 2015 is the belief that entrepreneurs can come together to solve major issues facing businesses, society and consumers. Wireless solutions can and should play a big role in that.

California’s Congressional delegation — especially Reps. Doris Matsui and Anna Eshoo, who is the Democratic leader for the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology — should continue to be leaders on this issue so that everyone can reap the benefits of wireless in the age of the Internet of Things.