The Digital Migration Marches On

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Recently, I joined the Silicon Flatirons Digital Broadband Migration event via a live-stream using wireless Internet access while sitting comfortably at Starbucks. Eighteen years ago, when Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, this now-everyday experience was unimaginable. Those who did have Internet access were most likely connecting at home through a dial-up modem (remember this sound?) and waiting for several minutes for a website to load. In technology timing, eighteen years is a few lifetimes – for context, Google, not Netscape, became mainstream in 1999, Facebook came online in 2004, hashtags were just the random mystery button on the kitchen phone (aka the “pound” sign).  The integration of innovation into our daily lives has happened with increasing velocity over recent years, but if you were born in or after 1996 you have never known a world without the Internet!

According to Pew Internet, the number of Americans using the Internet went from 14 percent in 1995 to 86 percent in 2013.  While Internet usage is interesting, it’s more amazing to think about how people are accessing the Internet and what they’re doing online. There has been a proliferation of many devices other than computers, which can network and communicate across the Internet. These include televisions, DVRs, medical devices, and of course our mobile phones. In fact, according to Internet Retailer, last year, for the first time ever, “mobile devices surpass[ed] PCs in online retail.”  Citing statistics from comScore, the article went on to say that “55% of all time spent with online retail in June 2013 occurred on a mobile device.”

This is a massive shift in how people not only shop but interact with the Internet. Mobile Internet access is only expected to rise as new trends, like wearable tech, become more sophisticated. At the conference, Brad Feld offered an even more radical vision for the future, “In the next ten years, all of us will be able to be physically connected to the digital universe.” If that’s true, the impact it will have on our lives is profound. It’s likely that in the next ten years the Internet and how it’s used will change at a more rapid pace than it did in the last 18 years when the Telecommunications Act was passed.

Technology will continue its drive, generating more and more innovation. But to maximize the potential of the Internet and meet consumer demand for more access, we need to transition to the most advanced technologies available. That’s why the recent decision from the FCC to start IP transition trials is so important.  Approximately 40% of households in the US are now mobile-only households.  People are leaving plain-old-telephone-service (POTS) in droves, but federal regulations still require some networks to spend an estimated $13.5 billion a year to maintain outdated technology, money that could be used to increase access to high-speed Internet or develop new innovations in our communications infrastructure.

At the Digital Broadband Migration event, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler quoted Abraham Lincoln, “As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”  This is an important point and a thoughtful principle to follow as it relates to technology.  When policies become outdated, it can hinder growth, innovation and private investment in much-needed advanced technologies. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was an important step for its time and today’s policies should acknowledge how much technology has changed in the last 18 years, while preparing us for even greater connectivity in the future.  Fortunately, Congress is starting to consider how our laws can be modernized with recent hearings at the Capitol. In considering new policies at the state and federal levels, leaders should take into account that innovation is occurring at exponential rate, but it’s not guaranteed to continue that way.  Our laws should be flexible enough to encourage rather than inhibit innovation and keep us moving forward.

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