AT&T's de la Vega lobbies for 'pro-investment' federal policies for 5G

BARCELONA, Spain -- AT&T CEO Ralph de la Vega once again voiced the carrier's optimism for early 5G rollouts, saying commercial deployments could begin as early as 2018. But he warned that "pro-investment" federal policies will be key to the carrier's investing to deliver next-generation products and services as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Speaking during a Monday-afternoon keynote panel examining whether "Mobile is Disruption," de la Vega said mobile devices and services are already proving disruptive in a variety of forms, from consumer-facing startups like Uber to an intercontinental shipping company that uses laptop-sized connected devices attached via magnets to shipping containers to connect and locate those vessels across the Atlantic Ocean.

"When you know where every container is," he said, "it changes your business model."

To continue paving the way for that kind of innovation, de la Vega said, U.S. legislators and regulators must ensure that laws and policies are in place that encourage carriers to invest in 5G offerings. The executive didn't cite any specific law or issue, but praised the Mexican government's recent efforts to loosen the grip of America Movíl, the nation's dominant carrier owned by billionaire Carlos Slim.

"There has to be a pro-investment policy that's going to help us justify" the substantial costs of launching 5G services, de la Vega said. "In 2015 we invested $20 billion in Mexico. Why? Because Mexico put in place a very pro-business strategy…. As a result of that we now have the largest 4G network in North America."

"In order for us to deploy 5G (in the U.S.) the regulatory policy has to be right," he continued.

And 5G will be crucial for increased disruption in mobile, he said, because it will enable service providers and other players to integrate software and the cloud more tightly with devices that continue to get less expensive and more powerful. And those devices will be connected to networks that are more widespread, offer more capacity, and deliver data at far higher rates than 4G networks.

De la Vega's comments are noteworthy considering AT&T said it plans to invest nearly $10 billion in 2016 to "deliver our integrated solutions for businesses worldwide." That figure won't change AT&T's the company's overall capex spending for 2016 of roughly $22 billion. The carrier said it would invest in deploying fiber in Mexico, IoT technologies in Europe, and other international efforts.

But even as de la Vega offered an unusually expedient timeline for launching 5G services, he warned fellow carriers and other mobile companies not to oversell how quickly those networks will come online.

"I think mobile is the enabler of disruption," he said. But "You have to be careful as an industry not to overhype 5G."

One major question the keynote panel didn't discuss, though, is whether legacy mobile carriers are themselves vulnerable to being disrupted in the age of 5G and the IoT.

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