Executives from government, industry, and investment met in Washington, D.C. Thursday to explore opportunities and overcome obstacles to advancing connectivity at the WIA Digital Infrastructure and Investment Conference.
WIA President/CEO Patrick Halley cited a Smithsonian Museum exhibit currently on display showing “all the ways cell phones have changed our lives.” The exhibit is sponsored by WIA members Qualcomm and T-Mobile and includes some “great wireless infrastructure” provided by Crown Castle, explained Halley. He said it includes innovations made possible “because of the deployment by carriers, manufacturers” and others. “Today, 99 percent of Americans have access to 3 or more 4G providers and 315 million Americans are already connected to 5G,” thanks to the massive investment by the wireless industry.
Halley said, “With 5G, we’re talking about the power of all the devices around us. We don’t know every invention” that’s coming in the future, but “we do know it will be transformative.” The networks being built now, he said, are “the killer app.”
The telecom industry’s continued success depends on good policy decisions, according to Halley. “We must make available for commercial use a substantial amount of new spectrum within the next five years and identify a longer-term spectrum pipeline. Halley cited a recent report that found that the U.S. needs 400 MHz of full power, licensed spectrum in the next five years to meet projected demand. “Multiple bands have already been identified as viable candidates, including the lower 3 GHz band and several other bands below 10 GHz.”
The industry needs “predictable, proportionate and transparent permitting policies. We’re not starting from scratch,” he said, citing previous policies out of Congress and the FCC such as colocation. That kind of progress needs to continue, he said.
FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, too, cited the agency’s work on colocation and national permitting. He’s been at the agency for 10 years, and in that time, many of the ideas developed at the Commission “came from infrastructure,” he said, citing tower climbers specifically. He said the country in 2014 was “effectively flatlined as far as new cell builds. 5G moved it along.” The FCC put permitting reforms in place that included shot clocks, for example.
Inside Towers asked Carr whether the FCC is able to monitor what’s happening to cell sites in Israel and Gaza. He said, “one of the first things people do now is take out a cell phone and take a video.” He mentioned the world saw that in Cuba recently. “I’ve long called for the U.S. to have the strategic capability to bolster” communications in cases where an authoritarian regime has cut off the internet. Representative Maria Salazar (R-FL) has introduced such a bill. “I would like to see us have more capacity at a deployment level.”
Carr also discussed spectrum, noting he issued a spectrum guideline in March of 2022, laying out what the country needs. Since the FCC lost its authority to auction spectrum in March, Carr said, “Unfortunately” the effort to put more spectrum in the auction pipeline has stalled. “We can’t just sit back at the FCC and hope Congress” helps that effort. “We’re not getting enough done [on that issue] unfortunately.”
What remains to be done? “A lot of the reforms we adopted were custom-made for small cells.” He’s called for “more clarity” on shot clocks, “taking what we did in wireless and applying it in wired.”
Carr’s concerned that the anticipated BEAD dollars “will drastically underperform” unless changes are made, such as changing the text from a fiber preference to a technology neutral one. NTIA, which will distribute the BEAD allocations to states, is under the Department of Commerce. That department “put its thumb on the scale for fiber.” That means “you’re really telling people you’re stuck until you get fiber.” He cited a recent tower climb near Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. “A telecom put in fixed wireless in basically, a weekend.” A fiber install “would have taken years,” he said. He made it clear “we do need deep fiber in this country,” but said there must be a balance of technologies used to close the digital divide.
Both Carr and Halley addressed the needed workforce to go hand-in-hand with getting new spectrum for telecom’s needs. He cited a recent Learning Alliance program in Florida with a WIA member. A veteran who was an Army mechanic took 12 students on a tower climb “for the first time. We have to shine a spotlight on programs like this to bring people into tower climbing,” explained Carr.
By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief