Big job-creating innovations are the result of “innovation platforms” that enable entrepreneurs and companies to build new devices, networks, and applications. In the 1990s, the new platform was the Internet. Businesses invested billions of dollars and created millions of jobs, even after accounting for the dot-com bust. Today’s next big job-creating innovation platform is the 4G mobile Internet.
We’ve come a long way since car phones were in car trunks. Today, 5 billion smartphones and other mobile devices have more computing power than the 1980s supercomputers. But over the next five years, the mobile economy will to rise to a whole new level as 4G mobile broadband comes on the scene with speeds equaling or exceeding today’s wired speeds and as hundreds of millions of people adopt smart mobile devices, from tablets to smartphones to e-book readers. The result will be an array of new applications, services, and business models that will create millions of U.S. jobs and power America’s growth.
Let’s take one example. In the past two years, bike-sharing programs that enable people to rent bicycles by the hour have sprung up in many cities. Think Zipcar for bikes. But without the mobile Internet, this model couldn’t work. Wireless data links connect the bike racks to a bike-tracking and billing database, and smartphone apps show riders where rental stations are and how many bikes are available.
This mobile platform—the 4G network, easy-to-use devices, and great apps—opens the door to new applications and business models. San Carlos, Calif., is using mobile networks to send construction schematics to firefighters en route to a blaze. Amtrak conductors use mobile devices to read tickets. The owners of “smart homes” can use their mobile devices to remotely control the lights, adjust the air conditioner, and program the digital video recorder. Obstetricians can use the AirStrip OB system to monitor the fetal heartbeat and maternal contraction patterns of their hospital delivery-room patients directly from their smartphones. Even our transportation infrastructure is getting smart: A new bridge in Minneapolis is equipped with wireless sensors that enable engineers to remotely monitor its condition. And the mobile Internet is allowing new implementations of augmented reality to digitally enhance our interaction with the physical world. Individuals can point the camera of their smartphones at a building and instantly see relevant data, such as restaurant reviews or real-estate listings. In five years, we will likely look back and be amazed at what new mobile Internet has wrought.
As the new platform powers growth, the federal government can help or hurt. Congress and the Federal Communications Commission should transfer licenses from inefficient, over-the-air digital television to mobile wireless through an auction and use some of the money generated to support the expansion of 4G networks throughout most geographic areas. Government should also be a first adopter, transforming its operations through next-generation mobile broadband. And finally, policymakers should avoid enacting privacy regulations that would stifle the development of mobile-broadband applications.
The author is founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.