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Why America's mobile problem matters

Tahoe Networks' Alan Cohen says continued reluctance by American business to learn from examples in Japan and Europe threatens to hold back the mobile Internet in the United States.

    After a decade as the world's only military and technology superpower, the United States is in danger of rapidly falling behind both our Asian and European allies in mobile communications.

    Our major trading partners in those geographies are moving past the United States in unlocking the productivity gains and value of this technology. This is highly disconcerting because of the role I think the technology could play in cellular communications and the Internet.

    I'm not just talking about consumer downloads of music and pictures, which are often cited as examples of how people will use the mobile Internet.

    The real issue facing American business is not a question of public subsidies, but a willingness to import business practices regarding the mobile Internet from other parts of the world.
    There is also a range of business applications for this technology in conjunction with e-mail, sales force automation, and customer service. Potential public service applications extend from traffic alerts and updated train schedules for commuters to instant polls and potentially even voting (under trial already in the United Kingdom).

    While abroad, I've experienced at first-hand the difficulties of using mobile phones and devices. Unlike millions of European, Asian, and Latin American businesspeople, I can only watch with envy as my fellow global travelers easily connect to e-mail or messaging from the road. Even though I work in Silicon Valley, I am less capable of using mobile data services than my colleagues in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

    The real issue facing American business is not a question of public subsidies, but a willingness to import business practices regarding the mobile Internet from other parts of the world. As Mark Twain noted in his classic novel Pudd'nhead Wilson, "few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example."

    If you want a good example, consider Japan's NTT, whose DoCoMo i-mode service has acquired over 33 million data subscribers and over 50,000 content sites in three years, effectively growing an AOL in one-fifth the time. Yet many Americans try to rationalize away Japan's experience, arguing that the Japanese are culturally different or are more inclined to use data services because they get stuck commuting on trains to work.

    In the United States, where the Internet and cellular communications are accepted business tools, users of fixed wire based Internet services and corporate networks will increasingly expect wireless access to these same services. A slow rollout can only hurt the American economy and hold down gains in productivity.

    Even though I work in Silicon Valley, I am less capable of using mobile data services than my colleagues in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
    There are steps the U.S. government can take to help. One would be to remove limitations on the amount of spectrum mobile operators can own in any given market. The government can also free up large blocks of spectrum still held up under the rubric of "national defense" and make them available to American carriers at fair prices. (In three European markets, 3G government spectrum auctions netted over $100 billion in state revenue. But the heavy cost they paid severely hampered the ability of these spectrum purchasers from fulfilling their ambition to build out their networks and offer innovative services.)

    A recent survey by the Mobile Data Association of 800 managers in the United Kingdom found that text messaging on cell phones is taking their business world by storm. More than 80 percent of the executives polled said they now converse regularly through Short Messaging Service. Over 1.2 billion SMS messages were sent in the United Kingdom during February 2002.

    As we mark the 100-year anniversary of the first transatlantic wireless transmission between Europe and North America by Guglielmo Marconi, this should serve as a wake-up call.

    "Supposing is good," Mark Twain noted, "but finding out is better." It's time U.S. business learned the lessons from abroad and applied them to our own mobile communications marketplace.