Currently Washington is focused on the fiscal cliff, the most present danger to our economy. As members and committee chairmen prepare for the 113th Congress, however, they will need to take on pressing issues for the tech industry with broad economic consequences.
In just a few years, a massive economic ecosystem has emerged around mobile computing. Smartphones and tablets went from niche products to indispensable consumer tools with adoption rates faster than those for the car, microwave, electricity or even the personal computer.
The rise of smartphones, tablets and apps not only is changing the way we communicate and access information but has become a powerful engine for economic growth. The mobile software marketplace has created half a million high-paying jobs already. American innovation is again leading the way to economic recovery, but that recovery is in jeopardy unless Congress deals with issues including science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and spectrum allocation.
STEM Education Critical for Growth
The mobile economy is growing so rapidly that companies are struggling to hire the developers and engineers they need. Tens of thousands of positions remain unfilled every month, and the growth of U.S. companies is constrained by an inability to attract highly skilled workers. The unfortunate reality is that our education system is not producing enough graduates with the skills that technology companies need.
While large technology firms often lead this debate, the problem is acute for startups and smaller software companies. The decentralized nature of the mobile software industry means that this is a problem affecting every congressional district across the country.
The current staffing shortage highlights the consequences of failure to invest in STEM education as our students’ math and science scores lag behind the rest of the world. The tech industry urgently needs Washington to reach agreement on this issue. STEM education is not a gamble. The rewards are right in front of us. High-paying jobs are there for the taking and safe investment in our children’s future is an easy decision.
While STEM education is a long-term plan to create the future workforce American technology companies need, we are faced with immediate staffing needs that must be met. A solution that tackles both these problems is the National Talent Strategy, which suggests raising $5 billion for STEM education through increased skilled-worker visas and green cards at higher fees for the tech industry.
Whatever path is chosen, the technology industry urgently needs congressional leadership to find a solution. Failing to meet our STEM education needs will ensure that the mobile economy created by U.S. innovation will become another country’s success story.Spectrum Fuels Innovation
Wireless spectrum is another critical area that requires immediate, responsible government action. Misallocated and underutilized spectrum resources are impairing the ability of mobile carriers to meet consumer and business demand. With the explosion of mobile data traffic, our wireless infrastructure is nearing saturation.
The Federal Communications Commission projects U.S. demand for mobile data to exceed capacity in 2013, and the situation is only expected to get worse. Networking giant Cisco projects mobile data traffic increasing to 18 times our current level within three years. National wireless carriers have spent tens of billions of dollars annually on facility improvements over the past five years, but they cannot overcome avoidable spectrum limitations. With government retaining control of nearly 60 percent of the available spectrum, it’s clear where opportunity exists to relieve this scarcity.
The pending incentive auctions will offer modest relief, but by the time that spectrum is allocated we will already need more. Congress can no longer focus on short-term fixes that are implemented on long-term schedules. The mobile economy depends on reliable wireless infrastructure, and the federal government must take steps to avoid the spectrum crunch by freeing up its own holdings for consumer use. Such a plan was briefly suggested during Senate debate of the National Defense Authorization Act and proposals like these warrant greater consideration.
As Congress weighs Internet policy, it should also be mindful of the changing nature of telecommunications services. That industry has evolved greatly over the past decade, and it’s important to weigh these changes when considering the telecom marketplace. Wired and wireless communications are now data traveling in the same manner through the same infrastructure. Regulators should be focused on the industry’s current structure and resist urges to base decisions on how it used to function.
Mobile technology and our industry evolve faster than Congress can act. Often we can innovate our way to a solution without needing attention from Washington. However, the pressing issues of workforce shortages and spectrum scarcity require Congress to take action. The solutions to these problems will result in better education, greater innovation and happier consumers. Hopefully Congress can meet these challenges quickly so Americans can soon receive the benefits.
Jonathan Zuck is president of the Association for Competitive Technology.