PCIA 2014 to focus on network evolution, worker training and '5G'

Phil Goldstein

PCIA, the wireless infrastructure's trade group, is holding its annual conference in Orlando, Fla., starting Tuesday, and it's clear that the organization has the future on its mind, both from a regulatory standpoint and the evolution of network technology.

PCIA declined to discuss what the attendance figures for this year's show are expected to be or how many exhibitors it has, but the organization's representatives said that attendance is trending up around 20 percent higher than in 2013. They also said there are 30 more exhibitors at the show this year than last year, up 45 percent from 2013, meaning there is likely going to be close to 130 exhibitors at the show this year.

The keynote speakers are a diverse lineup, including Vish Nandlall, CTO Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC) North America, Bill Smith, president of AT&T (NYSE: T) Network Operations, and Peggy Johnson, an executive vice president at Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) and head of Qualcomm Labs, an incubator focused on launching new businesses and products.

PCIA President Jonathan Adelstein told me he did not want to pre-empt his own keynote speakers but said broadly that they will discuss the "future of the network" and that the show is "going to capture upswing in the consumer experience" as networks evolve from LTE to LTE Advanced. Mobile data demands are increasing, putting more pressure of infrastructure players, whether they are tower companies, antenna designers, backhaul providers or small cell makers. The show will focus on how the industry will continue to handle that demand, Adelstein said.

There will likely be more topical concerns as well. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai will both address the attendees, Wheeler via video and Pai in person.

Wheeler is expected to say that the work being done by wireless infrastructure companies "behind the scenes often isn't glamorous. It doesn't get the headlines that the rollout of the latest smartphones and tablets do. But the bottom line is that the mobile sector cannot continue its rapid growth and the U.S. can't continue to reach its broadband goals without you."

Adelstein, a former FCC commissioner from 2002 to 2009, said PCIA was encouraged that the FCC voted last week to move ahead with rules for next year's incentive auction of 600 MHz broadcast TV spectrum. "The industry urgently needs new spectrum," he said. "Seeing the FCC take decisive, quick action is critical." However, Adelstein said it will likely be years before the spectrum can be commercially deployed by wireless carriers, given that broadcasters will need to be cleared and repacked into new channels. In the meantime, he said, the infrastructure industry will continue to provide additional capacity for carriers.

Although worker safety will not be a specific focus of the conference, workforce development will be, Adelstein said. In 2013, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 13 workers in the tower industry were killed at communication tower sites, which amounted to more worker deaths than in the previous two years combined.  Adelstein said PCIA is focused on accelerating and improving wireless infrastructure worker training as the best way to improve worker safety. "Most accidents come from people who are improperly trained or not following protocol," he said. PCIA is working with the organization Warriors 4 Wireless to help train veterans for infrastructure jobs.

"We are faced with a huge shortfall of qualified, trained personnel," he said. "One of the issues that we are talking about at the show is how to develop the wireless workforce of the future."

Speaking of the future, "5G" networks will also be on attendees' minds at the show. "We're trying to get a handle on 5G," Adelstein said, noting that advances in technology could lead to additional wireless throughput, but that history has proven there is never going to be an end to the cycle of infrastructure deployment. 

I'll be moderating a breakfast panel on 5G and how wireless networks will evolve over the next five years, "5G: What will the wireless network look like in 2020?" at 8 a.m. EDT on Wednesday. I'll be joined by Glenn Laxdal from Ericsson, Sungho Moon from SK Telecom and Ken Sandfeld from SOLiD. You can register here.

I look forward to seeing you in Orlando!--Phil

Correction, May 21, 2014: Corrected to note the accurate number of exhibitors at PCIA.