Op Ed: Wi-Fi promotes entrepreneurship, innovation, sharing economy

By Natalie Madeira Cofield - Special to the American-Statesman



The list of great companies started in someone’s garage is a virtual who’s who of American innovation. Not just tech giants like Google, Apple, and Microsoft, but other creative icons like Disney, Mattel, and even Harley Davidson. But for a diverse country built on the idea that everyone has an equal shot, this happy cliché has a downside too — not everyone has a garage, after all.

Fortunately, the same technology innovations that have fueled the “sharing economy” and disrupted so many industries are changing how we innovate and work as well. Shared offices and public workspaces are popping up all over the nation – from informal “third places” like Wi-Fi-powered coffee shops to incubators and co-working centers that allow innovators to meet, collaborate and create. Innovations like mobile broadband, cloud computing and ubiquitous cell service can make virtually anywhere the next great American “garage” — disrupting the process of collaboration and innovation the same way Uber and AirBnB have disrupted taxis and hotels.

This has implications that go far beyond business. At Urban Co-Lab in Austin, we are taking this model one step further — bringing the benefits of shared workspace to underserved urban areas and providing a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem in which activists and community leaders can connect and thrive. These are the neighborhoods where young leaders are least likely to have a garage of their own, but where creative change and revitalization are often most needed. Bringing quality workspaces into these urban corridors – along with innovation basics like Wi-Fi, whiteboards, and abundant coffee — gives every community an equal chance to be home to the next great idea.

But as these new sharing technologies proliferate, they also come under significant strain. This is most apparent with Wi-Fi, which has limited bandwidth and more and more users clamoring for online space. In schools, offices, and public buildings, we see this challenge every day — as Wi-Fi sputters and our phones endlessly refresh when user numbers start to climb. We expect slow service when we try and post a selfie from a stadium filled with 70,000 fans — and 70,000 smartphones along with them. But a crowded restaurant or busy city block shouldn’t face that risk. And a shared workspace won’t be shared very long if the Wi-Fi isn’t fast and reliable — it will be empty!

Fortunately, Congress is working to bolster our Wi-Fi system, by considering whether additional “unlicensed” — which means open to Wi-Fi — spectrum can be freed up and made available. Sens. Marco Rubio and Corey Booker are working together to promote bipartisan legislation that would free up some new spectrum for Wi-Fi, and this legislation should be pushed forward as soon as possible.

It is also vital that everyone who uses the existing Wi-Fi ecosystem do so in as responsible and cooperative manner as possible. Just as traffic can flow smoothly and reliable on the highways at very high rates of speed, but can grind to a halt if selfish or irresponsible drivers gum up the works, the same is true of Wi-Fi. New cellphone technologies that share Wi-Fi spectrum, for example, run the risk of crowding out existing Wi-Fi applications or clogging up the lanes by refusing to cooperate or “talking over” other Wi-Fi users.

These “LTE-U” systems may represent important new innovations, and I support everyone having fair access to the spectrum they need — but only if all technologies work together. Most experts believe LTE-U technology and Wi-Fi can co-exist, but only if stakeholders get together and establish standards for the sharing spectrum, just like the original standards that were created to make Wi-Fi work itself. But this must be an open process, where everyone who depends upon Wi-Fi can have a voice.

The sharing economy has incredible promise to bring new resources to underserved urban communities. I am proud to be bringing shared workspaces to Austin’s next generation of connected leaders. But this progress depends on Wi-Fi – and I call on our leaders and elected officials to ensure strong Wi-Fi is available to all.

Madeira Cofield is founder and chief visionary officer of Austin’s Urban Co-Lab.