@Body Ragged Right:More than 60 million Americans living in rural communities are at a disadvantage when it comes to communications infrastructure. A 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce found that only 57 percent of rural households have broadband Internet, compared with 72 percent in urban areas. That means more than 4 out of 10 households in rural America do not have broadband access, a staggering number for a world superpower.
@Body Ragged Right:Fortunately, strides have been made by both service providers and manufacturers of smartphones and tablets to bring mobile Internet access to rural communities. Mobile Internet access, especially 4G mobile broadband, opens the door to better education, health care and economic development for the millions of rural Americans who do not have access to reliable Internet connection in their homes.
But continuing these advancements could be disrupted, or even reversed, if smartphone and tablet availability and competition are threatened by potential injunctions and exclusions of devices based on overly broad and vague design patents such as in the Apple-Samsung wars that have been reported on over the last year. Design patents contain no technology; rather, design patents deal with the appearance and/or the shape of a device, icon or app. Whereas design patents are important to protecting against “knockoffs” or copycat products designed to mislead consumers, in the smartphone industry deception is clearly not an issue. Wireless customers can easily identify the difference between an HTC phone and an Apple or Nokia phone, for example.
Under current law, a company can (and has) applied for and secured a design patent on the basic shape of a mobile phone — a rectangle with rounded corners. Currently, applications are not made publicly available — a simple step that would allow for controversial applications to be challenged on the front end before any patent is awarded. This could potentially stave off years of litigation on the back end and would prevent the International Trade Commission from issuing damaging exclusion orders that prevent devices from entering the United States marketplace.
Any ruling that prevents mobile devices from being sold to Americans severely affects rural communities by decreasing the availability of wireless broadband device options. A way to prevent this result and the ensuing endless litigation is to allow more transparency. There should be basic reforms made to the application process to ensure more openness before design patents are awarded to allow for broader public review and debate.
Mobile broadband technology is allowing farmers to keep up to date with market trends that allow them to make better business decisions in real time. According to a recent study by Float Mobile Learning, 94 percent of farmers and agriculture workers have a mobile phone and half have smartphones. They rely on their phones for up-to-the-minute weather forecasts when they are working in the field, but also to monitor changes in local and regional commodity markets. Having access to farm documents from a handheld device allows farmers to easily refer to information about things like animal vaccinations or product information when they are on the go.
Smartphones are oftentimes farmers’ only lifeline to the world when they are alone, working in a field miles from their home. Without wired service in their tractors or combines, their only connection to emergency services is their mobile device. Reliable service and a durable device are critical in emergency situations. Apps are also helping first responders care for patients in emergency situations more quickly and more efficiently. Some apps store an individual’s medical history and prescription information, preventing possible drug interactions and saving time during a farm accident when there is not a moment to spare.
Mobile broadband technology is fostering economic development in rural America too. Thanks to technology that allows a smartphone or tablet to turn into a mobile payment center, businesses are no longer bound to their bricks-and-mortar storefronts. Because of this, a small business owner in Pennsylvania is now able to sell products across the state or to online shoppers around the globe. In fact, in 2012, the Rural Mainstreet Index, which measures rural economics, reached a five-year high, due no doubt in large part to widespread adoption of mobile broadband.
Advancements in smartphones and tablets are allowing more and more Americans in rural communities to access the Internet and find new ways to learn, prosper and lead healthy lives. As accessibility to information widens for rural Americans, so too must the device choices that allow us to access it.
Grace Boatright is legislative director of the National Grange, a nonprofit, nonpartisan fraternal organization that advocates for rural America and agriculture.
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