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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.