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Investments In Digital Infrastructure Can Spur U.S. Jobs Growth

April 21, 2017, 4:53 PM UTC
Photograph by Getty Images

For years, U.S. government leaders in rare bipartisan chorus have called for more wireless spectrum to fuel American innovation. It is time to turn talk into action.

Spectrum – the radio frequencies used to transmit information to and from mobile devices – is a vital resource and part of our national infrastructure. Yet it sometimes sits idle when it could be fueling the high-tech economy in a competitive, open environment to keep America’s global leadership in wireless innovation. American industry is ready to put underused spectrum to work for new technologies that will add billions to the U.S. economy and create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Despite the importance of leveraging spectrum for greater use, the decision to commercialize spectrum is often tied up in a years-long federal bureaucratic process. If we are serious about sustaining U.S. technological leadership, government must make decisions like this in a reasonable time frame so that industry stakeholders can continue investing in both our infrastructure and our country.

Today, much of the communications and technology industry’s innovation is focused on the emerging Internet of Things (IoT). With its data-hungry, always-connected devices, IoT is already sending demand for connectivity to new heights – a trend expected to continue in the years ahead. Spectrum is the foundation that enables this connectivity, and it’s the key ingredient, which will spur countless emerging industries to innovate in ways we cannot even imagine.

The benefits of this type of investment go well beyond consumer applications of IoT, such as refrigerators that send your smart phone a message when you need milk. Even more critical are industrial IoT technologies that will make America a safer place to live, work and travel. For instance, real-time monitoring along railroad tracks can identify unsafe conditions and prevent derailments.

Connected vehicles have the potential to prevent as many as 80% of accidents caused by impaired drivers. And air-medical operators, such as our partners at Metro Aviation, will be able to collect, download and analyze critical information – including high-resolution cockpit video and vital patient data in real-time – on the way to emergency rooms.

One thing these and other critical applications have in common is the need for wireless networks to support the transmission of this data. Next-generation 5G networks are in the early stages of development, promising to achieve unparalleled reliability and breakneck speed. But building these networks – for consumers as well as for industrial applications – cannot happen without large amounts of spectrum. Recognizing this strong demand, elected officials on both sides of the aisle have called for more spectrum to be made commercially available, but approvals sometimes get caught in a bureaucratic morass.
The buildout of 5G networks, whether for industrial or commercial use, will be costly. Fortunately, the wireless industry is eager to invest private dollars into building out these next-gen networks, and we are readying plans to do so.

One solution is combining satellite- and ground-based capabilities into one seamless network, which has never been done before in North America.

Satellites have the benefit of ubiquitous coverage and terrestrial networks can handle higher-bandwidth applications, like the transfer of photographs, video and other large sized files. Combining the strengths of both offers obvious and compelling benefits: for example, imagine a paramedic tending to a patient in a medevac helicopter, flying through a rural community during a rainstorm. With an advanced satellite-terrestrial network in place, the paramedic could be in constant contact with emergency room doctors at the destination hospital, exchanging charts and live video updates regarding the patient’s condition without fear of losing connectivity.

We often think of innovation as an unstoppable force – that is to say, if great technologies have the power to move our country forward, we’ll find a way to build them. Unfortunately, when it comes to building out these next generation networks, that is not always the case. Decisions about spectrum can often be held up by lengthy government review processes for years — creating uncertainty. With federal studies recently showing the safety and reliability of the satellite-terrestrial network concept, the time is now for Washington to move forward.

Applying private sector innovation and investment to solving our nation’s spectrum challenges is one of the things America does best. It’s also essential to ensure we continue to lead in the international community by creating products and solutions here first. As Washington takes a fresh look at how to maintain and improve the networks that have supported the 20th century economy, let’s also prioritize and invest in the infrastructure upon which tomorrow’s economy will depend.

Doug Smith is the President and CEO of the satellite communications company Ligado Networks.