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iPad Politics

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, February 1 2010

The morning-after reaction on the ultimate utility of the iPad has been distinctly mixed. But at least the new device from the mind of Steve Jobs is proving politically useful. The iPad's 3G network connection, when coupled with what looks to be a pretty attractive interface for consuming content in large quantitative, raises concerns that AT&T's already overburdened networks will move data even more slowly. The FCC's Director of Scenario Planning (note: that's an awesome, if Orwellian, title) Phil Bellaria uses the attention-window created by last week's iPad demo to blog on the topic on

Apple’s iPad announcement has set off a new round of reports of networks overburdened by a data flow they were not built to handle. These problems are reminiscent of the congestion dialup users experienced following AOL’s 1996 decision to allow unlimited internet use. For months users had trouble connecting and, once they did connect, experienced frequent service outages. The FCC even held hearings on the problem.

The congestion problem circa 1996-97 revealed an intense latent demand for Internet access. Similarly, wireless network congestion today reveals intense demand for wireless broadband. Widespread use of smartphones, 3G-enabled netbooks, and now, perhaps, the iPad and its competitors demonstrate that wireless broadband will be a hugely important part of the broadband ecosystem as we move ahead.

Eventually, AOL was able to resolve its problems by upgrading its modem and server capacities. Wireless providers today, too, will be able to deal with congestion issues but only if they have adequate spectrum. Reaching an always-on wireless broadband future means that spectrum can no longer remain attached solely to uses deemed valuable decades ago. The broadband plan will suggest ways of moving more spectrum into high value uses, such as broadband access, to help ensure that we don’t get stuck in 1997 dialup-style congestion.

The policy side here is complicated, but it can be reduced to the idea that the more the public is frustrated by dropped phone calls and data slowness on their mobile devices, the better it likely is for the FCC's recent attempts to assert considerable standing on the development of the mobile industry. But the communications win for the FCC is more clear cut. It's kinda nice to have a official blog on which to air timely insights straight from officialdom when you regulate an industry -- telecommunications -- where so much of the discussion seems so often based on rumors and whispers.