Jonathan Adelstein, president and CEO of the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA), welcomed attendees at WIA’s Connectivity Expo in Orlando last week by recounting how the WIA won the battle to include wireless technology in the $42.5 billion broadband bill. Adelstein then focused on the fight the WIA faces to keep broadband technologically neutral in all the states, the inherent mobility and resiliency of wireless infrastructure and the leaps and bounds 5G wireless has made during the past 18 months through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The pandemic, as horrible as it was, showed us how much we rely on broadband. We kept the whole economy afloat,” Adelstein said — citing employees working from home, patients connecting with doctors though Wi-Fi and families being able to see each over wireless technology other during the pandemic. “All of that was done with the infrastructure you built,” he said to an audience at the Connectivity Expo, commonly called Connect (X), conducted in-person for the time in 18 months. The last Connect (X) with in-person attendees took place in May 2019, and the show was postponed twice because of COVID-19.
“Wireless networks kept up with all increased network traffic,” Adelstein said. “That’s because we invest $30 million a year in networks. That’s why the United States has the best networks, with the right regulatory framework, by investing in responsible wireless infrastructure. We want to make sure we keep that regulatory environment allowing for innovation in our infrastructure. We’re the voice for wireless infrastructure in Washington; we’re the voice for wireless infrastructure in the states.”
Featured speakers at Connect (X) (held from Oct. 4 to Oct. 7) included many wireless industry leaders, such as Jeff Stoops, president and chief executive officer of SBA Communications; Alex Gellman, chief executive officer of Vertical Bridge; Neville Ray, president of technology at T-Mobile; Rikin Thakker, Ph.D., chief technology officer of WIA; Marc Ganzi, founder and CEO of DigitalBridge; FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr. Dozens of other session speakers filled a packed show schedule.
Adelstein talked in about the infrastructure bill under consideration in Congress, with $42.5 billion earmarked for broadband technology.
“We think the bill, as it landed in the Senate, ended up in the right place,” he said. “We started last year with too many policymakers believing all we need is fiber: a standard of 1 megabit up and 1 megabit down that intentionally excluded wireless, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. It came to a head in the Congress. I made the argument: Do you want mobility? Do you want resiliency? Do you want public safety? Fiber doesn’t trail the ambulance or the fire truck. 5G plays a huge role in climate change. Do you want to save the planet? Or do you want to have a 100 megabits upload that nobody uses? I made the case that wireless is more resilient — with a multiplicity of technologies. When a crisis comes, we have a technology that works. When a crisis comes, we have a technology that works.”
For Adelstein and the WIA, keeping broadband technologically neutral remains the key challenge.
“We should cover all technologies and let the market decide which one works best,” he said. “Let competition happen. Make sure we can have an effective disaster recovery. A flexible all-of-the-above approach is what we advocated, including fixed and mobile wireless, along with fiber. Fiber is great. We need it deeper into our network, but why shouldn’t it connect to an antenna sometimes? Does it need to go to the end user every time? And in the end, Congress agreed with us. It was touch and go, but our message really resonated. Negotiators rejected the 100 megabits up and down standard and instead they took up our call. They explicitly made the bill technologically neutral.”
A veteran of legislative and regulatory negotiations, Adelstein detailed the process of pitching the logic of a technologically neutral approach: “They made service at 100 megabits down and 20 megabits up eligible, which 5G can meet,” he said. “And they included language I suggested on speed of deployment.
“One thing that really works with politicians is asking: ‘Do you want to pass this bill before your next election — or after you’re basically retired?’ That’s how long it would take to build out fiber to every household in the country. We can get wireless to deploy quickly. We’ve done it time and get, even with shortages. I said we can get it done and that convinced enough to put it in the bill. I said one of the priority standards is speed of deployment. And one of the priority standards is resiliency, which we can win on every day of the week. So, I’m proud that we won, but it matters a lot because there was so much money — $42.5 billion — for broadband rolled out. We’ve never seen anything like it,” Adelstein said.
As Adelstein described the role of wireless in the infrastructure bill, the battle has been won but the war is far from over — especially when apportionment of funding disseminates down to the states.
“We might have won in the Congress if we could get them to pass a bill,” he said. “They have to worry about the states and how they apportion the money. We need to make the case in each one of those states that, again, we need to make sure that it’s technologically neutral in practice. Because the way the bill is written, there’s a lot of flexibility for states to do a little bit of mischief.”
The WIA CEO said his association is already hearing about states being focused on fiber only.
“We have a tight schedule ahead of and we really need you to make sure we don’t get disadvantaged again,” Adelstein said. “Because this is going to hit the ground in the states where you live and work. I think this industry can compete and win if it’s a fair fight to expand broadband everywhere. But: We need to make sure it’s distributed in a technologically neutral manner — and we don’t have states putting these trapdoors in there. We need to get the states involved and the companies on the ground involved to make sure we have success in state capitols. We have a good track record in state capitols.”
Adelstein said that, so far, 32 states have enacted small-cell legislation that fits the model that WIA had put together — with all of the association’s members, from carriers to infrastructure companies, agreed on a careful balance that expedites review of reasonable project and the rights of way but that also retains thoughtful zoning rules, including height limits and keeping things in the rights of way.
“I think that investment that our board has made, and it hasn’t been cheap having that many lobbyists, has been a major commitment of resources by WIA and now we have an opportunity to use that infrastructure to convince state capitals to make sure that wireless funding is included in the infrastructure buildout,” Adelstein said. “The states have already gotten $10 billion from the feds and if the full $42.5 billion comes, we want to make sure that we have ourselves included in that bill because we can deliver that service to the end user every bit as good as fiber. It has all the other benefits of mobility and resiliency.”
Mike Harrington is a contributing editor.