CTIA kicks off Super Mobility week by looking back, eyeing future of 5G

CTIA show

LAS VEGAS—It was a walk or two down memory lane during the CTIA Super Mobility 2016 opening day keynotes, with CTIA Chairman Glenn Lurie recalling his days of selling bag phones – he sold a lot of them, which explains his presence on today’s stage – and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler reminiscing about how things were when he first stood on the CTIA stage as its leader in 1992.

While they reviewed a great many things that have changed and innovations the industry has managed to collectively deploy, one thing that hasn’t changed is the need for spectrum. “For as long as I can recall, this industry has had a constant refrain that government should make available more spectrum,” Wheeler said. “The Congress responded, and the FCC implemented a plan to do just that.”

Kicking off the event, CTIA President Meredith Attwell Baker said the U.S. needs to remain the global leader, as it did in 4G LTE, in the next generation of wireless. “We need the next generation of innovation to happen here,” she said, noting that as an industry, spectrum is something “we will always talk about.”

Wheeler spent a brief part of his presentation discussing the 600 MHz incentive auction. The FCC ended the first stage of the 600 MHz incentive auction on Aug. 30 after bidders offered a little more than $23 billion by the end of the 27th round. A second round of bidding in the reverse auction kicks off next week, on Sept. 13, to determine the cost to clear a reduced amount - 114 MHz - of spectrum.

“Following that, we’ll again turn to the forward auction to determine if the spectrum is worth that cost to you,” Wheeler told the audience.

The FCC also accomplished the record-setting AWS-3 auction and created the new Citizens Broadband Radio service in the 3.5 GHz band, which he called landmarks in using new sharing tools to open up more mid-band spectrum. “It is interesting that this is apparently where Europe sees its 5G developing,” he noted.

Over the summer, the FCC approved an order making the U.S. the first country in the world to open up high-band spectrum for 5G networks and applications. “And in order to give this industry the opportunity to lead the world in 5G, we did it in record time – only nine months from proposal to final decision,” he said.

Wheeler also spent some time on a hot topic: The citing of small cells. Estimates put the number of small cells needed in 5G to 10x growth and potentially more. “That’s hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of new antennas,” he said. “That’s hundreds of thousands, if not millions of siting decisions.”

That raises questions about how government can accelerate the siting process. Part of that involves telling the story about what 5G is – and not just in terms of technology but as deliverables that real people can use and local authorities can wrap their heads around in order to move it forward.

“Let’s talk about the benefits of smart-city energy grids, safer transportation networks and new opportunities to improve health care,” Wheeler said. “Let’s paint the picture of how 5G will unleash immersive education and entertainment industries, and how 5G will unlock new ways for local employers to grow, whether it’s a small specialty shop or a large factory, creating new jobs and improving services for the community.”

In sum: “5G is not a technology, it is a revolution,” he said.

Reviewing just how much the industry has accomplished over the decades, Lurie reminded the audience that the Motorola RAZR, introduced in 2005, made phone calls – “we didn’t text” back then and browsers were based on “that awesome” technology known as WAP. It was just nine years ago that the first 2G iPhone was launched and one year later came the 3G version. It just shows how fast the industry is changing, he said, noting that for about 12 years there, every year was supposed to be “the year” for wireless data.

Now, 99.6 percent of the U.S. population has access to 4G LTE, indicative of how advanced the U.S. has become over other regions, and the industry must continue to invest in advanced capabilities in the networks. Networks based on open source software will be critical in order to provide flexibility, scalability and make everything work faster for everybody, Lurie said.

Interestingly, offering an example of how industry and regulators can work together, Wheeler said that back in 2001, Cingular and T-Mobile undertook a joint venture called Empire. The carriers agreed to share each other’s spectrum and infrastructure in three states, enabling each to fill coverage needs while avoiding the costs of building out redundant infrastructure. The deal was dissolved when Cingular purchased the wireless assets of AT&T, but it was considered a success, he said. 

“To be clear, I’m not endorsing shared infrastructure in every and all circumstances, and certainly not opening a door to consolidation,” he added. “But I am saying that if we’re talking about thousands of antennas in a city, and you’ve got four carriers, and we are serious about leading the world in 5G deployment in our very large and spread-out country, we ought to explore creative options on how best to build that infrastructure.”

For its part, the Commission is committed to cutting red tape and it’s streamlined the environmental and historic preservation rules, as well as tightening the “shot clock” for siting application reviews.

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