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Connect (X) Top Execs Give Buoyant Report on Health of Tower Industry

By J. Sharpe Smith, Senior Editor

The View From the Top panel. From the left: Steve Vondran, American Tower; Jeffrey Stoops, SBA Communications; Jay Brown, Crown Castle, David Weisman, Insite Wireless Group; Alex Gellman, Vertical Bridge; and Jonathan Adelstein, WIA. (Photo Don Bishop)

Speakers gave upbeat assessments of the tower industry on the “View From the Top: Tower Executive Roundtable,” moderated by Jonathan Adelstein, president and CEO of the Wireless Industry Association during its Connectivity Expo earlier this week.

Earlier this week, which has been crowded with wireless news, FCC Chairman Pai announced that to receive approval from the FCC for the Sprint merger, T-Mobile had committed to deploying its 5G network into rural areas, with 85 percent of rural Americans covered within three years and 90 percent covered within six years.

Alex Gellman, Vertical Bridge CEO, said he believed even if the FCC had not required the rural coverage, the New T-Mobile would have done it anyway.

“I always believed that T-Mobile would be aggressive as a standalone wireless company post-merger,” Gellman said. “It will be a positive for the tower industry to have an aggressive, co-equal third carrier, especially one that is focused solely on wireless investment in their network. AT&T and Verizon, on the other hand, have competition from other segments for their capital.”

The previous day at the Connectivity Expo, T-Mobile Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray showed a graphic that depicted a three-layer 5G rollout cake with the bottom, largest layer consisting of 600 MHz spectrum, topped by mid-band spectrum layer with the top, and smallest, layer of millimeter wave spectrum.

David Weisman, president and CEO, InSite Wireless Group, responded to the carrier’s plans, saying he views the T-Mobile 600 MHz rollout as validation for macrocells, but he noted how far the industry still is from understanding what approval of the merger will look like.

“The Department of Justice has not spoken. When they do there will be a whole set of details and concerns as to how it is going to rollout. It may create a three and a half carrier environment. The devil is in the details,” he said.

Jeffrey Stoops, SBA Communications CEO, said T-Mobile’s proposed deployment at 600 hits SBA’s sweet spot, and he sees it resulting in a lot of collocation on existing SBA assets.

“T-Mobile, which is an active services client of SBA’s, will be requiring more services,” Stoops said. “We will help speed the deployment of the network so Neville won’t have to pay any penalties.”

Jay Brown, president and CEO, Crown Castle International, seemed less interested in prognosticating the future of the Sprint/T-Mobile merger. Instead, he noted that fundamentally the tower industry prospers when the carriers are well funded and there is spectrum to deploy, as well as growing data needs.

“The driver is the growth and usage of data. As we progress from a 4G environment toward 5G, we are better off concentrating on the opportunities and the need for infrastructure, regardless of the number of carrier customers in the market,” Brown said.

Speaking of wireless industry growth drivers, the panelists touched on the early stages of 5G development and the ongoing saga of Charlie Ergen, DISH and the deployment of a nationwide IoT network.

The tower industry is barely at the beginnings of what will be a decade long deployment of 5G, according to Steve Vondran, American Tower Executive VP, president, U.S. Tower Division.

“As you see the use cases develop and the usage of the network go up 30 to 40 percent per year, we expect the same evolution of 5G that we saw in 4G,” he said.

Brown pointed to increased number of connections per base station, which will be enabled with the 5G equipment, making Internet of Things applications possible.

“It opens up the business model for lower-use devices, as well as lower revenue devices that should allow the carriers to generate better economic returns for the spectrum that they hold,” he said. “As we see better economic returns, the carriers’ willingness to invest in their networks to improve their networks is a virtuous cycle that we all benefit from.

Stoops noted, and Brown and Weisman later agreed, that since there is little 5G equipment available, the driver for tower growth remains in the future. Weisman has seen some initial demand for supplemental millimeter wave hotspots for venues with heavy demand.

“It is great for our industry in that we are at this very early stage in the evolutionary rollout,” Weisman said. “We are going to see a whole host of rollouts that are going to lead to more utilization of our infrastructure. There is doubt that 5G has the potential to be part of a new industrial revolution.”

Weisman said he is confident that business cases for 5G will eventually be developed, perhaps through using network slicing to provide a premium product with a higher price tag, but until then carriers will need to work on their business model for consumer users. “It will come. There will be an Uber for 5G, but in the meantime carriers will move away from unlimited data. They can’t continue to give data way,” he said.

DISH and other Comm-infra Opportunities

SBA Communications has been doing a lot of business with DISH Network, helping it deploy its nationwide Internet of Things network. Stoops described DISH has appreciative of SBA’s help in its efforts to deploy its technology. Brown called DISH diligent in its buildout efforts, and Weisman referred to the company as a “sleeping giant with an enormous amount of spectrum capacity.”

“One of the things we have been able to help them with is to rely on our roots as a network development company with our services side of the business,” Stoops said. They have a lot at stake. We are working hard with them to see that the [spectrum buildout requirements] get met. There is a lot to be done and we are right in the thick of it.”

Brown said it is important to look beyond the Big Four carriers to find infrastructure opportunities so much spectrum laying fallow and capital flooding in looking for wireless applications.

“I think we are in for a prolonged duration of growth rate. Look at the amount of capital that is looking to convert every type of data into a mobile application. DISH is one of those early players,” he said.


OPINION: WIA — A Driving Force Behind the Wireless Industry

By Ernest Worthman, AWT Executive Editor and IEEE Senior Member

The general trend within the wireless media is to recap conferences and trade show, both as they run and afterwards.  That has a great deal of value, both to the attendees, for what they were not able to catch, as well as those that cannot attend. However, rarely do organizations behind such events get recognition for the hard work and maximum effort it takes to, successfully, pull it off. Most of the time this behind the scenes work goes unnoticed. So rather than pen another recap of the today’s happenings at the Connectivity Expo here in sunny Orlando, Florida, I want to take a moment to bring to light more of what the Wireless Infrastructure Association is about and how much they actually do for this industry.

I had the opportunity to have a spot of lunch in the WIA member room while its president, Johnathan Adelstein, talked a bit about all the areas WIA is invested in. I knew about some of them but others I had no idea about.

The fact that WIA has enough esteem to draw speaker from inside and outside of the industry, like Neville Ray and Adam Koeppe of T-Mobile and Verizon, respectively, and Shelly McKinley from Microsoft, speaks volumes. But having Orlando’s mayor, Buddy Dyer show up and speak, is, really, impressive. Orlando’s mayor is one of the more progressive when it comes to issues such as siting. That he recognizes that WIA is the organization that is capable of helping Orlando, as well as other cities, to understand and expedite deployments and smooth over the speedbumps that deploying such new, as well as, expanding existing networks present, speaks for itself.

Tangential to Connect X, WIA events also work at bringing together some of the brightest minds in the industry to move wireless technology forward. One of WIA’s missions is to develop other events, such as the Wireless Hall of Fame to bring people together to generate ideas. Another is to provide platforms, one of which is a new blog, where thought leaders can discuss industry topics and present new or innovative ideas. Another is to provide an information platform to allow industry players to inform other peripheral segments, through white papers, for example, about developments in wireless segments.

There is also their support in forming working groups to further the development of bleeding-edge, evolving industry segments. The smart city working group is a prime example. This group partnered with the Smart Cities Council to bring attention to smart city development though a number of avenues. The idea is to cross pollinate wireless technologies with smart city concepts to come up with a variety of wireless solutions to the challenges of making a city smart.

WIA has also created the Innovation & Technology Council, which focuses creating and disseminating white papers on a variety of issues. Topics include the economic issues that surround broadband wireless network and infrastructure deployment in rural America, for example. As well, they created a report on mobile broadband policy concerns for the 5G buildout. And, this is only the beginning. Such task forces and councils are ideal for tackling the complex issues around wireless deployment.

Peripheral platforms are not forgotten either. A new fiber working group has been formed, chaired by Crown Castle to work on getting transport capabilities for the emerging 5G platforms.

And, WIA has been instrumental in moving heterogeneous networks forward with the creation of the HetNet forums back in 2006, and the small cell forums for a similar number of years. WIA has been a driving force in helping companies deploy small cells by providing a wealth of data pertinent to small cells and HetNets. Without such support, it is unlikely small cells would be where they are today. As well, there are many other directions in which the WIA is moving – too many to mention here.

My motivation for this missive is to let the industry know that there is an organization out there that has its finger on the pulse of wireless and that can only be of benefit to it. I have watched them, over the years, bloom and grow – a credit to Jonathan, Tracy Ford, and the rest of the WIA team, and how hard they have worked to bring the organization to where it is today. I am impressed by the leadership team of WIA and I believe it will be the driving force and a leading organization in the infrastructure space, going forward.

Wireless Key to Fast-moving Smart Cities Effort: WIA White Paper

Smart cities and communities are quickly becoming a reality as municipalities look to provide enhanced public-safety services, sustainability and efficiency within transportation, energy, water, waste and other public services, according to a new white paper titled “Wireless Infrastructure as the Foundation of Smart Cities and Communities,” published by the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA).

The authors of the new report conclude that broadband connectivity is crucial for cities and communities to remain financially healthy and to provide citizens with educational and other opportunities.

“Faced with increased populations, cities are challenged to create more efficient ways to deal with the impact of this growth while being sensitive to environmental, economic and quality of-life issues,” said Jim Lockwood, CEO and founder of Aero Solutions, co-chair of ITC, and chair of the Smart Communities Working Group. “Connectivity and bandwidth are fueling a new gigabyte economy that will rely on smart services. Wireless and fiber-optics are key enablers of that connectivity and will play essential roles in creating smart communities.”

The white paper concludes that aligning government policies with network capabilities is essential to enabling the successful implementation of smart technologies, breaking down departmental and forming partnerships.

“Communities should adopt a forward-thinking and cooperative approach to accommodating infrastructure elements in public rights of way and on existing utility and other structures,” the authors write. “In addition, communities must heed a variety of regulatory guidelines and consider a variety of options to fund the buildout of smart city infrastructure.”

Members of the ITC Smart Communities Working Group who contributed to the white paper include Jim Lockwood, Aero Solutions; Don Bach, Boingo Wireless; Bernard Borghei, Vertical Bridge; Bryan Darr, Mosaik; Ray Hild, Triangle Advisory Group; Rebecca Hunter, Crown Castle; Keith Kaczmarek, inPhase Wireless; Ray La Chance, ZenFi; Jim Nevelle, Kathrein; Peter Murray, Dense Networks; and Sam Rodriguez, Aero Smart Communities.

The new research paper is available on the association’s Online Resource Library, which features a collection of white papers examining new wireless technologies and the issues facing the wireless infrastructure industry. Produced by the association’s Innovation & Technology Council (ITC), the reports cover a variety of topics and aim to educate industry, government and the public.

In addition to white papers from the ITC, the Online Resource Library features other materials created by WIA and its members.

To download a copy of “Wireless Infrastructure as the Foundation of Smart Cities and Communities” and other industry research please visit the WIA Online Resource Library at www.wia.org/resource-library

WIA Conference Supports Diversity of Technologies

By J. Sharpe Smith, Senior Editor

We talk a lot about paradigm shifts in the communications infrastructure industry. Last week, the Wireless Infrastructure Association effected one of its own in the Connectivity Expo, Connect (x), held in Charlotte, North Carolina. Combining its HetNet conference with its annual conference, the association essentially realized the new reality of comm-infra. The industry is converging, and so must the conferences that educate the industry.

I can’t remember exactly how many sessions WIA had last year, but this year felt like the association went from zero to 60 in 3 seconds with 11 keynotes, 44 breakout sessions, plus the Supplier Diversity Summit.

And it wasn’t just the expansion in the number of sessions but the increase in the breadth of topics that was impressive. Along with macro cells, the topics spanned intelligent edge networks, private LTE networks, connected property, vehicle-to-infrastructure and the enterprise. This was not your father’s tower show.

It was obvious from the very beginning when Satyen Yadan, GM IoT and Edge Services, Amazon Web Services, walked out on the spacious stage, things had changed. But FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly’s interview with Kathleen Abernathy, Wilkinson Barker Knauer, which came next, showed that the conference is still deeply rooted in the advocacy of the communications industry. The next day featured a keynote by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

As WIA expanded the size of its tent, it also invited more people inside. The association’s Partnership Program certainly added attendees from outside WIA’s normal sphere of influence, including the North Carolina Public Safety Broadband Summit, the CBRS Alliance, IoT Charlotte, Government Wireless Technology & Communications Association, Multefire Alliance, the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council, Smart Cities Council. The list went on.

Were the WIA staff happy will all of their programming and partnership choices? I am guessing there will be an in-depth discussion analyzing the sessions, speakers and partners. Diversifying a conference is no different from any business. It’s risky. Once, I asked a tower developer why she hadn’t diversified into small cells. Her answer was short and to the point. “We tried diversifying once and didn’t make any money. We are sticking with what we know.” And there is a lot of opportunity in “sticking” with towers.

However, bringing this discussion back to where I started. With the coming of the paradigm shift that is 5G, there is a greater awareness of the variety of next generation communications opportunities that require towers, small cells, fiber and edge computing. The ecosystem has not shifted away from towers. It has expanded, including towers, which will host CRAN aggregation as well as edge computing facilities, not to mention IoT and FirstNet antennas.

There are three reasons, maybe four, to go to a conference. Learning about opportunities to make money is at the top, following closely by identifying competitive threats and networking. A few go to make deals, too. This conference checked all of those boxes.

I go to conferences looking for news and to cover the comments of the newsmakers. Covering Charlie Ergen’s interview with former FCC Commissioner Rob McDowell was a highlight. Appearances by the C-level tower heads and FCC Commissioner O’Rielly and Chairman Pai were also newsworthy. My conversations in and around the show floor with B+T Group, Black & Veatch, BHC Rhodes, nespa, Cobham Wireless, and others were all informative.

Kudos to the WIA staff for all their hard work in reinventing their annual conference and making it a success.

Towers Provide a Springboard for Connectivity Expo

By Don Bishop, Exec. Editor, Assoc. Publisher, AGL Magazine

The Connectivity Expo, Connect (x), conducted in Charlotte, North Carolina from May 21 to May 24 by the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WiA), showed how much the membership association’s remit has expanded since it grew from PCIA’s Site Owners and Managers Alliance, a membership section of tower owners and managers. Once focused, seemingly, almost entirely on telecommunications towers, the annual convention has increasingly added coverage of wireless network management, technology and content through the years.

Using partnerships with other organizations, this year’s convention added substantial coverage of the nationwide public safety broadband network of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet). Coverage of public safety wireless communications to that extent is something WIA previously left to others.

Tower companies received plenty of representation at the convention, with executives of five tower companies appearing during the “View from the Top” roundtable that has highlighted WIA conventions for 12 years running. And WIA’s board of directors has only tower company executives, plus the association’s president, with seats at the table.

Keynote speakers came from the ranks of wireless carriers, would-be wireless carriers, internet strategists, asset managers, manufacturers, data center operators, NASCAR, Amazon, FirstNet and the FCC. In fact, not one, but two FCC commissioners, including the chairman, spoke at the convention’s general sessions.

For years, a question asked at WIA conventions was, “What will Charlie do?” referring to Charlie Ergen, Dish Network’s founder and chairman. Since 2006, Dish Network has acquired rights to radio-frequency spectrum without putting it to use for terrestrial commercial wireless communications. As a deadline to use it or lose it approaches, the company has revealed plans to build a wireless network to serve the internet of things (IoT). Ergen spoke at the convention, saying that the company’s intentions already have been revealed through agreements with partners, and he summarized the Dish Network plan for using its spectrum.

Ergen said Dish Network’s access to only a limited amount of upllnk spectrum meant that its wireless network would not offer broadband service comparable to other wireless carriers and their plans to offer 5G wireless communications. Instead, the Dish Network would serve a universe of IoT applications. That’s what Charlie said he would do.

Dish Network probably would spend as much as $10 billion on its wireless network, Ergen said. His estimate later met skepticism at a panel session with representatives of privately owned tower companies where none of the participants responded affirmatively when asked whether they believed Dish Network would spend that much.

Tower companies heard good news expressed in a session of investment bankers, business brokers and stock analysts where a panelist said he expected Sprint and T-Mobile US to keep spending like crazy — $10 billion to $11 billion combined — to bolster their networks while their proposed merger goes through regulatory hoops for as much as a year to 18 months. And if and when the merger happens, he said that during the next three years, Sprint and T-Mobile will raise their spending with tower companies. He said the carriers would not turn off anything until they put all of the Sprint and Clearwire frequencies on T-Mobile sites and all of the T-Mobile frequencies on Sprint sites that they are going to keep. Watch the pages of AGL Magazinefor who said what about the outlook for towers and other wireless infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the convention’s coverage of all things related to the FirstNet network highlighted concerns about helping first responders with their wireless communications to save lives, prevent injury, treat the injured and protect property.

A corner of the convention dealt with ending fatalities caused by vehicular collisions with pedestrians and bicyclists. Computer vision systems at intersections allow observing, tracking and analyzing the behavior of people, cars, bicycles and dogs including not just collisions, but also near-collisions that otherwise go unreported. Knowing what actually goes on with all of these moving parts allows cities to take actions that save lives.

In all, Connect X offered a remarkable range of speakers and information that extended well beyond the world of towers, small cells and distributed antenna systems that underpins WIA and its convention. Deep in its history and under previous names, WIA had little to do with wireless infrastructure. Each year brings a new mixture of markets, technology and regulation. Towers may not be central to WIA sometime in the future, but for now, they continue to have influence, as evidenced by a portion of the convention focus and by the membership of the association’s board of directors.