By Tom Still

MADISON – An arm of the United Nations recently predicted that 2010 will be the year when the world hits 5 billion cell phone users and 1 billion mobile broadband subscribers.

Think about that for a second. That’s almost as many cell phone users as there are people on the face of the planet.

It’s a remarkable commentary on the revolution in telecommunications that has swept across the world. From Singapore to the Serengeti, people are using mobile, wireless devices to access the internet for reasons that range from the personal to the professional.

An image that sticks in my mind is seeing people in northern Tanzania, in areas where you’re more likely to spot African wildlife than a telephone pole, using their cell phones. Expensive land-line technologies had been leapfrogged there, even during my visit four years ago, in favor of more accessible wireless access.

Wouldn’t it be great if public policies in Wisconsin caught up with those in the developing world?

That question is only half in jest. A good deal of telecommunications policy in Wisconsin seems trapped in a time when “telecom” meant a plain black analog telephone hanging on the wall.

Today, telecommunications is defined broadly to reflect a tidal wave of change in the age of digital computing and the Internet. The early 21st century meaning of telecommunications is the transmission and distribution of multiple forms of data – voice, text, video, music and more – through a variety of means. Seemingly overnight, the revolution in telecommunications has shattered rules that generations believed to be unwavering.

Rethinking regulatory barriers tied to the landline era are part of Wisconsin’s overall effort to ensure that its telecom systems are world-class and that all regions of Wisconsin, from its major cities to its rural areas, have a chance to compete in the 21st century marketplace.

While Wisconsin is getting more aggressive about deploying broadband networks and using federal stimulus dollars to do so, the law and the regulatory culture haven’t kept up. In fact, efforts to nudge Wisconsin’s regulatory structure closer to the times sometimes come across as painfully slow.

At a recent legislative hearing on two bills (SB-469 and AB-696) that would streamline some regulations, lawmakers were told that one telecom rules change has been under review by the state Public Service Commission for 10 years. That’s a lifetime in telecom innovation.

That snail-like pace is often defended in terms of protecting consumers. But consumers aren’t protected when someone in Tanzania can do their banking over the Internet miles from the nearest town and someone in rural Wisconsin can’t access high-speed internet.

Part of protecting consumers is making sure they have access to the latest technology – technology that can improve their businesses and their quality of life. Greater broadband access and cell-phone service is important to rural Wisconsin for many reasons:

* It allows small businesses, which account for 60 percent of new jobs in Wisconsin, to expand their markets and customer bases to the national and even international levels.
* It creates more opportunities for creation of businesses related to information technology, one of the fastest-growing sectors in the U.S. economy. Wisconsin is 21st among the states in IT employment, but poised for growth if the right “highways” are opened to all parts of the state.
* It enables hospitals and clinics to better utilize telemedicine applications. An example might be rapidly locating digital medical records and medical images that can be easily transmitted to doctors or clinics in remote locations. Wisconsin is a hotbed of electronic medical record innovation, and it should capitalize on that.
* It provides rural Wisconsin residents with greater access to higher education through distance learning systems. Those systems themselves could become an export industry for Wisconsin, which could better leverage its K-gray educational system.
* It makes rural Wisconsin more likely to attract large data centers, which are part of many of today’s virtually integrated businesses and corporations.

Within five years, the United Nations predicts, Internet access by people on the move – such as laptop computers and “smart” mobile devices – will exceed web access from desktop computers.

For Wisconsin to compete in that changing world, its laws and regulations need to move beyond a 20th century land-line mentality. Five billion cell phone users can’t all be wrong.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.