A Stake in the Future

One of the most dynamic and innovative markets in the country is the wireless business. And no group understands that better than Hispanics.

Just look at the numbers. According to a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 84 percent of English-speaking Hispanics have a cell phone, a rate higher than the overall population. English-speaking Hispanics also are early adopters of wireless data services, and are more likely than other Americans to have sent text messages, emailed, watched video, or played music on their mobile devices. Perhaps then it’s not surprising that we are the most attached to our wireless devices. More than half of English-speaking Hispanics say it would be “very hard” to give up our cell phones – even harder than giving up TV!

The Pew survey was conducted in English, and it notes that wireless adoption rates are lower among Spanish-dominant Latinos. But it is clear that the Hispanic community relies heavily on wireless technology to stay connected. In fact, a recent government survey found that nearly one in five Hispanic adults live in a wireless-only household, a rate higher than the overall population.

For many Hispanics, wireless technology is the primary means by which we keep in touch with family and friends, at home and abroad. Wireless service is a vital link to jobs, doctors, and other critical services. And since wireless broadband provides untethered access to the Internet, it is also a tool to help close the digital divide.

This is why the Hispanic community has a stake in the future of wireless public policy – and in preserving an environment where wireless service can remain affordable, accessible, and marked by continued innovation.

One area of concern is excessive taxes. Long gone are the days when cell phones were luxury items. Yet CTIA, the wireless trade association, notes that the average effective rate of taxes and fees on wireless consumers is more than 14 percent –more than double the average tax rate for other goods and services. This disparity continues to grow, placing an unfair burden on wireless consumers.

Nonetheless, the wireless market has thrived thanks to smart public policy. For example, in 1993 – still the early days of cell phones – Congress recognized that wireless service does not operate according to state lines and took steps to prevent a patchwork quilt of wireless regulations from forming across the country. This realization – that wireless service is inherently national in nature – enabled development of the national rate plans that are so popular today, and helped the economies of scale that make wireless service so affordable. In another significant move, Congress wisely decided to rely on competition to ensure the fast-moving wireless industry would serve consumers. The success of the U.S. wireless market since that time is indisputable.

For example, in 1994, U.S. consumers on average paid an estimated $0.47 per minute for voice calls. By the end of 2007, that rate plummeted to $0.06 per minute – a more than 85 percent price drop. In fact, our per-minute calling prices are among the lowest in the world, including lower than in every Western European country.

Innovation is also soaring as carriers battle in the marketplace. For example, the iPhone – the envy of the wireless world – was first introduced here in the United States.

Another way wireless carriers vie for customers is through pro-consumer initiatives. For example, in recent years AT&T has introduced a 30-day no-questions-asked trial period for phones and service; interactive coverage maps, allowing consumers to view coverage estimates down to the street level; and Rollover® minutes, allowing customers to utilize unused anytime minutes month to month for up to one year – to name just a few consumer-friendly programs. Like other carriers, we know that unhappy customers can take their business elsewhere – the vast majority of Americans can choose from at least four providers – so we have every incentive to remain responsive to consumer feedback.

The Hispanic community has an important voice in the future of wireless, not only with carriers like AT&T but also with policymakers.

We share a common interest in keeping service affordable and preserving a consumer-driven marketplace, where carriers have the flexibility to meet customer needs and continue to innovate. Together, we can make sure we stay on the leading edge of the wireless revolution.

Ralph de la Vega is the CEO of AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets.