From siting to spectrum, CTIA revels in banner year

Meredith Attwell Baker
As head of CTIA, Meredith Attwell Baker is in charge of the largest trade association for the wireless industry. (CTIA)

It looks as though 2018 has been a banner year for CTIA, the U.S. wireless industry’s largest trade association.

The FCC removed barriers to wireless infrastructure deployment and established shot clocks for small wireless facilities. That was in addition to excluding small cells from some of the federal review procedures designed for larger, 200-foot towers. Granted, many cities are coordinating their opposition to infrastructure rules from the feds, contending that they should be the ones in charge of how local small cell deployments are handled. But CTIA called on the FCC for infrastructure reform, and that’s what it got.

It also wanted more spectrum. At the beginning of 2018, there were no new auctions scheduled. By the end of the year, the 28 GHz auction is well underway and the 24 GHz auction will soon follow. Combined with the 37, 39 and 47 GHz auction due to start in the second half of 2019, these auctions are freeing up more spectrum than is currently used to provide terrestrial mobile broadband by all the service providers combined. That’s a lot of spectrum in the pipeline—more than ever in recent memory.

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Near the beginning of 2018, CTIA was sounding the horn, citing research from Analysys Mason showing China with a slight lead in 5G readiness, with South Korea and the U.S. close behind. CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker said there was still time for the U.S. to catch up, and she appeared at countless hearings and other venues to make sure lawmakers and the FCC got the message. Coming to the end of 2018, it appears that they did.

‘Thrilled’ about progress in siting, spectrum

In an interview with FierceWireless reflecting on the past year’s accomplishments, Baker said the association took the time at the beginning of the year to listen to its board members. The leadership at CTIA looked at the global race to 5G and what other countries were doing, particularly in the amount of spectrum they were allocating to operators. What they saw was a need to revisit federal and local siting regulations and identify more high- and midband spectrum for wireless.

“I am just really thrilled and proud of the progress that we have made this year on both of those goals and I think it’s accelerated how quickly we’re deploying 5G,” she said. “It’s real and we’re rolling it out and it’s exciting to see how much we’ve accomplished this year as an industry. I think Americans and consumers are winning.”

Baker is a daughter-in-law of James A. Baker III, who served as U.S. Secretary of State and White House Chief of Staff under President George H.W. Bush. He also was White House Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Treasury under President Ronald Reagan. Yet you won’t hear too much about the family connections unless you look at her Wikipedia page. Baker has established a reputation of her own, having served as an FCC commissioner during the Obama administration, a position she took after serving as acting head of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA).

She’s part of a well-established family of Republicans, yet it’s clear that bipartisan decisions are a high priority. “I find it very important for everything to be bipartisan and I think it’s really important that we have a positive agenda,” she said. “You will not see CTIA taking down other industries—we won’t throw an elbow. We will always take the high road... We want our issues to be embraced by both sides of the aisle.”

How is the U.S. situated now in the race to 5G? “I think we’re neck in neck. I think the commitment of the industry and the commitment of policymakers has made a huge difference and we have made enormous progress,” she said. “There’s still more work to be done, but I think people look at how transformative 4G was and how transformative 5G will be and I think everyone’s excited at all levels. I am confident that we will win.”

Even her four stepdaughters—each of whom are pursuing very different careers—know about 5G. They know it’s coming and they know about spectrum, “and that’s not because I talk about it all the time,” she quipped. Even her 85-year-old father is interested in trying 5G in his Houston neighborhood where it’s being advertised. 

History with CTIA

This isn’t Baker’s first stint at CTIA. From 1998 to 2000, she served as director of congressional affairs for CTIA and helped get 911 designated as a national emergency number. That was back in the days when cell phone “cloning” was a problem, another issue that she worked on.

Now she’s at the helm of the organization, leading the industry as it aims to roll out more services using millimeter wave spectrum, something that was deemed mostly unusable for mobile services for years. She was instrumental in CTIA’s decision to partner with GSMA on its annual trade show, which is now known as Mobile World Congress Americas. Under her leadership, CTIA has embarked on educational efforts and established itself as a technical resource. Running the organization campaign-style, with every member of the team working together rather than in a siloed environment, has been a priority. (She also has been identified by Fierce as one of the most powerful people in wireless and outpaced FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in voting this week.)

Retired Verizon Wireless CEO Dan Mead was chairman of the CTIA board when Baker was hired in 2014. He remembers looking at a short list of candidates that included former members of Congress, former ambassadors and current leaders of other trade associations who were interested in the job. When they got around to interviewing Baker, she was “incredibly well prepared” and it became clear that she was an outstanding fit for the position—not only for her background in law but also her experience at the FCC and elsewhere in Washington.

Being able to work across the aisle with both Republicans and Democrats is extremely important in the wireless industry and having been a former FCC commissioner, “she knew the interworkings,” he said. It was also time to add diversity; the wireless industry’s employment base is at least 50% female, yet CTIA had a history of putting male leaders at the helm.

“It gave us a chance, with the best qualified person, to also add some diversity,” Mead said. When she put her organization together, she continued in that vein and focused on working across the aisle, building on the reputation of CTIA.

It’s paid off. About a year ago, Baker signed a new contract, extending her tenure with CTIA to 2024. Looking back at his time on the CTIA board, Mead said hiring Baker was probably the greatest achievement during his time as chairman. “I just couldn’t be more proud of that,” he told FierceWirelessTech.

Any regrets?

Of course, not everything in 2018 went exactly the way CTIA had hoped. The 3.5 GHz rules took longer to finalize than many had hoped. CTIA had urged the commission (PDF) to include the 37/39 GHz and 47 GHz bands along with the 24 GHz band in Auction 102, but that didn’t happen. For the most part, though, it got its way on the big things.

Is there anything Baker would have like to have gone differently over the past year?

“I really think policy makers have been committed to winning this race in a bipartisan way that I’m really proud of,” she said. “I think we need to continue the work,” particularly on the progress that’s already being made in bands like 3.45 and 3.7 GHz. “I think we have more work to do there, but I think everyone is committed to figuring it out.”

Asked about the 3.7-4.2 GHz band in particular, where the C Band Alliance is voluntarily proposing to give up 200 megahertz when some say much more is needed, she is optimistic things will work out. The fact that the satellite operators are proposing their market-based approach means things could go a lot faster. “It’s a tough nut to crack and I think we have to weigh in several different factors as to the amount of spectrum that you want and the time that you want it in,” she said. 

Another feather in CTIA’s cap: It reached a consensus in April with the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA), which represents smaller and regional operators across the country. CTIA is often seen as the association that’s only got the biggest operators’ interests in mind, so the two are often on different sides of the fence. But they reached a compromise on the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) band in the name of 5G.

“I think we’re better when we’re together. We’re stronger when we can speak with one voice so I was really happy that we were able to join with them,” Baker said.

Glenn Lurie worked alongside Baker when he was chairman of CTIA in 2016. “I think she has proven that she has people’s respect, people trust her in D.C., and she’s able to get things done,” he said.

He left AT&T last year after a long career there but he said it was important for him to get back on the board of CTIA when he took on his current role as president and CEO of Synchronoss Technologies.

CTIA continues to improve its track record. “I think each year they’ve gotten more and more done,” he said. “They’ve been more successful each and every year and I think again, that’s attributable to the team. It’s attributable to a focused set of actions and a focused set of key priorities and I would expect there will be even more in ’19 than they did in ’18.”

That’s a pretty tall order after the success of 2018, but Baker sounds like she’s ready for the challenge.

“We need to continue what we started, but it’s been a fantastic bipartisan effort at every level of government—the administration, the Hill and particularly the FCC,” she said. “Everyone is committed to winning the race to 5G. We are first movers and we are in really good shape.”