One the one hand, you have wireless carriers telling anybody who’ll listen that 5G will soon create the incredible, smart cities of tomorrow and no limit of incredible innovation. On the other hand, you have 42 million Americans without access to broadband during a plague, and tens of millions more stuck paying high prices for slow services thanks to monopolization and a lack of competition. It’s a discordant reality gap that isn’t lost on Martin Cooper, who invented the first cell phone (the Motorola Dynatec 8000x) in 1973. In an interview at CNET, Cooper pointed out how despite a history of innovation, the United States still somehow can’t make broadband both universal and affordable, which is why 40% of US students struggle to get online:
“Just imagine what that means over the long term,” he said. “That’s unacceptable.” Cooper said the technology exists to deliver wireless broadband to students for as little as $5 to $10 a month, and that the government needs to be more proactive in convincing carriers to offer such services.
“It’s as essential as water and food,” he said. “We need to have 100% accessibility to broadband services not just for students, but everyone.”
Of course that’s largely because we’ve historically viewed broadband as a luxury good that should be exploited and barely regulated, not an essential utility, overseen by the dual guiding hands of both competent regulators (what’s that?) and functional competition (huh?). That’s proven to be notably problematic during a pandemic, given broadband is essential not just to online learning, employment, health care, and connection, but also to even sign up to get vaccinated. As such, he’s damn right we need more “innovation” in universal and affordable broadband access policy, and less hype surrounding emerging technologies like 5G.
Cooper also shared some thoughts on the fact that the nation’s largest companies tend to dominate spectrum auctions, resulting in valuable spectrum being hoarded by a select number of companies that aren’t always interested in equitable use of that spectrum (especially by competitors):
“There’s plentiful spectrum,” he said, noting that his unofficial “Cooper’s Law” states that spectrum capacity doubles every two and a half years. Cooper railed against Federal Communications Commission’s spectrum auctions like the one that wrapped up in late February. Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile spent $81 billion on radio airwaves for 5G services.
“Someone that has paid billions of dollars for radio airwaves would not appreciate the idea of plentiful spectrum,” he said, adding that spectrum should be only allocated to companies that can deliver services that take care of human needs…”We haven’t finished the internet of people yet, and the industry is already emphasizing the internet of things.”
COVID-19 is placing a lot of pressure on lawmakers to finally do something about America’s spotty, expensive, and sluggish broadband. But it remains a concern that all the focus will be on innovative ways to throw more subsidies at industry, and less innovation when it comes to finding ways to drive more competition to market and dismantle massive US telecom monopolies (the cause of the problem in the first place). Especially at a time when “big telecom” gets a free pass, and “big tech” is busy sucking all the policy discourse oxygen out of the room.