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39 years of Cell Phone Freedom
The new iPhone is about to be announced and many people are excited about the potential technological advances. These new advances are just part in a long chain of progress leading back to April 3rd, 1973.
It was an important day for our modern technological society. Joel Engel from Bell Labs received a phone call from his counterpart Martin Cooper, a researcher at Motorola, from the middle of Manhattan. Why was this particular call worth mentioning? Because of what Martin had to say, “Joel, I’m calling you from a ‘real’ cellular telephone. A portable handheld telephone.”
That was the first cell phone call, and since then we’ve never looked back. It is estimated that there are more than 5 billion cell phone subscriptions in the world today, and the wireless industry is said to have reached $1 trillion in revenue worldwide in 2011.
Of course, no one today carries a cell phone that is even remotely similar to Martin Cooper’s. His phone was several pounds and only had enough battery life for a few calls. Our phones are also our cameras, computers, entertainment devices, calendars and watches. They keep us connected to our friends and family and help us with our jobs. Many people consider them indispensable. But how did they go from being a brick in 1973 to being the modern marvel they are today? One important reason is economic freedom.
Having economic freedom means that individuals and businesses are able to control their own resources free from government interference. It has been shown that higher levels of economic freedom lead to more prosperity and innovation, both of which are necessary for technological advances to take place.
The development of the modern cell phone would not have taken place in an environment with a lack of economic freedom, because businesses would not have taken the risk of investing their resources into developing new technologies without being certain they had control of their resources first. As an example, when the first cell phones were being designed, the physical phone itself was only one part of the picture. Developing the network that the phones would use was the other half, requiring a huge investment in infrastructure. Who would create a vast network of transmitters to handle cell phone calls without assurance that this network was their property? It likely would not have taken place in a country with little economic freedom, but the company was able to create the network here without those concerns.
If the government provided poor protections for their property rights, cell phone innovators would be vulnerable to theft or legal troubles. If the government didn’t ensure freedom to trade internationally, then the producers of the phones would be completely hamstrung in their ability to get the parts they need or sell their products effectively. For example, China produces more than 90 percent of the rare earth elements needed to create advanced cell phones. If we weren’t able to trade with China, it would be very difficult or even impossible to manufacture the cell phones we use today.
The cell phone has come a long way in 39 years, and who knows what it might look like in the future. If we uphold economic freedom and allow people to innovate, the new technologies that can result aren’t even imaginable today.