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Bill Clinton: Politicians should learn from the wireless industry

Bill Clinton told attendees at the CTIA tradeshow that the wireless industry is a good example of people working together to solve problems and he urged politicians to take note.

The 42nd President of the U.S. Bill Clinton addressed attendees in New Orleans at the CTIA 2012 trade show. Kent German/CNET

NEW ORLEANS -- Former U.S. President Bill Clinton took the stage here on the final day of the CTIA trade show to emphasize the need for cooperation in solving problems domestically and abroad. And he pointed to the wireless industry as a good example of how this cooperative spirit has created an industry that is changing people's lives.

Clinton was the last keynote speaker at the CTIA conference. It was his second appearance at the industry's semi-annual trade show. He came to Orlando, Fla., in 2007 with former President George H. W. Bush.

The primary message that Clinton delivered to a packed and enthusiastic audience here seemed directed not so much to the wireless industry as it was to partisan politicians in Washington and throughout the world, who are allowing their divisions and ideology get in the way of cooperating to meet the nation's and the world's needs.

"Diverse opinions are healthy and disagreements are good," he said. "But if the goal is to win through protracted conflict it may work in politics but not in real life. What works in real life is building cooperative networks to figure out how to move forward on this or that challenge."

He said that the wireless industry is a good example of the real life cooperation that goes on to solve some of the world's biggest challenges.

"I think about the business you all are in that has created many new networks of cooperation," he said. "And my main point is that we have to make our politics more like what we know works in real life."

In the developing world, the wireless industry has helped bring banking to people who have no other access to financial institutions and it also helps improve healthcare access. Clinton used Haiti as an example. In 2011, only 10 percent of the population had bank accounts. But nearly 80 percent had access to cell phones. He said that one of the Clinton Global Initiative partners, a company called Digicel, worked with some Canadian banks to provide a banking service that allowed cell phone users in Haiti to make cash withdrawals without a bank account.

He said that in Africa, where less than 2 percent of the population has access to a computer but where 45 percent have access to a cell phone, mobile phones are being used to help patients validate their medication to ensure that it's not counterfeit. He said this is a huge problem on the continent, especially in Nigeria. Using basic feature phones, people can text message a code on their bottle of medicine to validate that it is authentic. He also talked about the telecom equipment provider Ericsson's efforts to help refugees in Africa reunite with family members.

"In every case there is cooperation between the cell phone company and government," he said.

In the U.S., which is still recovering from the financial collapse in 2008, he said that the technology industry, which is focused on working together to solve a common set of problems like energy, has helped economically revive regions of the country.

"There are centers of prosperity in the U.S. where you'd be hard pressed to know we ever had a financial crisis," he said.

Silicon Valley and the San Diego area, which has more Nobel Prize winners than any other city in the world, were prime examples. He said that the thing that struck him in talking to people in the technology industry in California was that he has no idea if he is talking to a Republican or Democrat, because everyone is focused on talking about how to solve problems together.

And he pointed to other places around the U.S. that have become similar areas of innovation due to their focus between government and industry to solve to common problems. In Orlando, Fla. there are more than a 100 companies that focus on computer simulation technology. The U.S. government spends $5 billion a year to have jet fighter planes and other military vehicles and equipment simulated there. He said these companies work with Disney and Universal Theme parks, which also use simulation for their large theme parks to entertain millions of tourists each year. Areas such as Orlando and Massachusetts, where MIT is located, are roaring back due the cooperation between government and private industry, Clinton said.

Clinton also mentioned other nations as good examples of how cooperation has helped improve living conditions and protect the environment. He said people who work in government in Costa Rica and Brazil have different viewpoints and opinions, but they're able to work together for the common good. In Brazil he said that representatives from several different political parties that span the spectrum of political viewpoints are able to work together to balance economic and industrial growth while still preserving the environment. He said that more than 20 percent of earth's non-ocean oxygen is produced by Amazon rainforest, which Brazil's government has worked to protect.

In Costa Rica, where Clinton was visiting before his visit to New Orleans, he admitted that things were not perfect. But he said the company's per capita income is "light years ahead" of any other country in Central America because of the choices made by the government to work with business and NGOs.

Clinton wrapped up the speech with some advice to leaders in the U.S.

"Our our work force is younger than Europe and Japan," he said. "Having lost it, I can tell you: Youth matters. Demographics determine the destiny of a country. We want differences of opinion, but we also want cooperation. If we get back in the future business, we're gonna be fine."