Guest Opinion: Palo Alto leads in wireless, but needs bandwidth to operate
A funny thing happened in Palo Alto on the way to the 21st century. There's controversy about the future of wireless technology.
This sounds strange because much of the innovation driving the explosive growth of wireless devices has been created in Silicon Valley. In fact, our region has had a significant role in the evolution of what ITU World Telecom calls "the most rapidly adopted technology in the history of the world." Globally, there are more than 5.2 billion wireless phones, and developing countries see wireless communications as an effective tool to compete with the leading economies.
Few people would be surprised that Palo Alto probably has more smart phones and smart devices per capita than any other city in the world. All of this new technology needs wireless bandwidth to function properly. This apparently insatiable demand for more powerful devices has led Apple to begin work on a new store in downtown Palo Alto. Rumor is its size will rival Apple's store in Manhattan.
Fortunately, our president has seen and embraced the future. Barack Obama understands the strategic importance of building a communications infrastructure that will allow our country to compete in the new century. "For millions of Americans, the railway hasn't shown up yet," the president said recently. "For our families and our businesses, high-speed wireless service, that's the next train station. It's the next offramp. It's how we'll spark new innovation, new investments and new jobs."
The wireless communications phenomenon has already generated thousands of Silicon Valley jobs. Yet, the future holds even greater promise. Smart devices will drive the next wave of innovation and expansion. In the United States, there are more than 300 million mobile phones. More than 65 million people had smart phones in January 2011, an 8 percent increase over the preceding quarter. In addition, American consumers identified smart phones as their most likely technology purchase for 2011.
The operating system for smart devices is dominated by two Silicon Valley companies, Google and Apple, with more than 50 percent of the market. In addition, the global mobile applications market is estimated to reach $25 billion in 2015 from about $6.8 billion in 2010. The emerging devices and applications are right in the Valley's "sweet spot."
What's most amazing are the emerging applications that wireless technology will enable. Health care will be profoundly improved when doctors can remotely monitor a patient's status in real time. Health professionals will have access to medical records on hand-held devices and make better-informed decisions about patient care. Educators have already started including hand held devices in their teaching practices. Digital textbooks and smart devices will revolutionize how students interact with teachers and the curriculum. The Federal Communications Commission recently awarded $9 million in grants to schools and libraries to support the development of wireless applications. Unfortunately, none of the 20 grants was awarded to Silicon Valley schools.
Infrastructure for the future
The potential of wireless technology can only be enabled if there is a robust wireless infrastructure. Ironically, in Silicon Valley, it has taken as long as five years to review and approve an application to build wireless facilities. In some cases, residents have felt that wireless carriers have ignored their concerns by rushing project applications through local bureaucracies. Too often the process has turned adversarial and made dialogue almost impossible.
Much of the controversy has evolved around whether radio-frequency emissions are a health risk. The actual emissions from wireless facilities are a fraction of what the federal government has established as being safe. However, the perception is that cell towers, due to their size, are a greater health risk. To date, medical studies in this country and abroad overwhelmingly suggest that RF emissions are not a health risk.
In a recent Palo Alto Weekly article, Dr. Paul Fisher of the Stanford School of Medicine stated, "The bottom line is there's no known association between cell phones or towers and health effects." "This is the high tension wires of our time" he went on to say, comparing a similar debate about the health risks of high-tension wires 30 years ago.
Another concern in Palo Alto is wireless facilities affecting home values. To date, no one has presented meaningful data to prove any neighborhood or individual has seen the value of their homes negatively impacted. However, communities should be concerned about the aesthetic impact of wireless facilities. Some cities have worked with neighborhoods and wireless carriers to develop guidelines that minimize the visual impact while supporting technology deployment. Public safety is also an issue when approximately 25 percent of homes in the United States have no wired connection and depend exclusively on the wireless telephony. Every day, more than 300,000 wireless calls are made to 911.
A way forward
A new Wireless Communications Initiative (WCI), as part of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, is working with city councils, city staff, wireless carriers and communities to promote deployment of a 21st-century wireless infrastructure. The future of Silicon Valley and local job growth is very much tied to the evolution of the wireless technology. The question is not whether we'll have a 21st-century infrastructure, but rather, how and when.
As a way forward, the WCI has launched the Coalition for a 21st Century Wireless Infrastructure. The coalition's objective is to create balanced conversations and community dialogue in support of deploying wireless technology. We need people to advocate by writing letters, speaking at hearings or by lending their name as a coalition supporter. You can join the coalition or get more information at the Wireless Communications Initiative page on the Joint Venture Silicon Valley website (www.jointventure.org).
Silicon Valley is defining the future. We should lead by example when it comes to inventing and embracing our new wireless world.
Leon Beauchman is the director of the Wireless Communication Initiative of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network. He can be contacted at email@example.com.