Upgrading to a new cell phone? A government shutdown means you could be waiting a while.

October 1, 2013

(Photo by MattsMacintosh.)

If the federal government stays closed for more than a couple weeks, new wireless devices may take longer to get to market, disrupting the economy in the process.

That's because the Federal Communications Commission is charged with testing and approving new wireless products. And the people who work there were forced to stay home Tuesday morning, along with thousands of other federal employees.

Industry analyst Jeffrey Silva tells me a brief shutdown probably won't cause many problems. But he added that a prolonged shutdown "could very well lead to a backlog and delays in the equipment approval process, a far more troublesome scenario for manufacturers and other stakeholders."

The FCC plows through 16,000 device authorizations a year — up 400 percent from a decade ago. In a good month, that means processing over 1,000 applications. There are some third parties who have permission from the FCC to do the testing elsewhere. But it's not clear that they would be capable of picking up all the slack during an extended shutdown, nor handling all the paperwork that's already in the FCC's hands.

Blair Levin served as the chief of staff to then-FCC chairman Reed Hundt during the last government shutdowns of the 1990s. He says he doesn't recall ever having to worry about device authorizations then, mainly because the technology was so crude. New wireless phones might come on the market every six months. Today, the pace of competition has rapidly increased.

"The market used to be small," he said. "We were using bricks for phones. Now it's actually a serious issue — you have Apple and Samsung and Motorola and others all coming out with devices that were planned for release this coming year."

Failure to fund the FCC would mean putting that whole process at risk, agency commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel told the Senate last month. Looks like we're getting a small taste of that now.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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