Editor's Corner—Why 5G standards matter for small carriers and potential newcomers

Smartphone woman
Speakers at CCA's annual conference urged small carriers and potential newcomers to be involved in the development of standards for 5G.
Colin Gibbs Editor's Corner

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA—The coming era of 5G coupled with the rising internet of things is positioned to provide a lift to U.S. network operators of every size. But smaller carriers who aren’t actively involved in developing standards and helping shape policy risk being excluded.

That was the message from speakers at FierceWireless’s executive breakfast Wednesday at the Mobile Carriers Show, the annual event hosted by the Competitive Carriers Association. And this year’s show is being held at the same time members of the 3GPP are meeting in Spokane, Washington, to continue to hammer out standards for 5G.

‘If you’re not there, you’re not represented’

Representatives from global heavyweights such as AT&T, NTT DoCoMo, Ericsson, Qualcomm and Vodafone are in attendance at the 3GPP conference, according to the group’s website. C Spire, a regional carrier that claims roughly 1.2 million customers in the southeastern U.S., also had a representative in attendance. Other small U.S. carriers should find ways to be at such events as well, said Eric Graham, C Spire’s senior vice president of strategic relations.

“That’s where the decisions are being made. They’re being made in Spokane, Washington this week, and folks, you’re not represented. If you’re not there, you’re not represented,” Graham told attendees at the breakfast. “That’s where decisions are being made on 5G standards, and if we’re going to have a 5G standardized product, which is what the manufacturers are going to build for the bulk of us, you need to be there, you need to have your voice heard. You need at least to be aware of what’s being built into the standards.”

Interoperability is the key

The danger for smaller network operators is that interoperability mandates may not be built into some future standards for 5G technologies, which could give major carriers a huge edge. AT&T, for instance, claimed in June 2013 it would not be able to deploy LTE over its 700 MHz Lower D and E Block spectrum until mid- to late 2014 because the necessary interoperability test cases for LTE Advanced carrier aggregation were still in development within 3GPP. AT&T acquired the unpaired 700 MHz licenses for $1.93 billion in December 2011 from Qualcomm, which had used the frequencies for its now-defunct MediaFLO service.

Smaller carriers called foul, saying such a position made it prohibitively expensive for them to sell devices that could roam onto AT&T’s network, essentially leaving them unable to leverage spectrum they had already invested in. Indeed, lower 700 MHz A Block licensees had long argued that vendors like Apple made equipment for AT&T's Band Class 17 and Verizon Wireless' Band Class 13, but not for those smaller companies such as C Spire Wireless and U.S. Cellular that hold 700 MHz A Block spectrum in Band Class 12. The FCC auctioned 700 MHz spectrum in several different bands in 2008.

AT&T backtracked a few months later, though, agreeing to support both Band Class 17 alongside Band Class 12. Specifically, the company said it will develop, implement and deploy throughout its network multifrequency band indicator (MFBI) capabilities to support the interoperability. That interoperability was essentially completed in January 2017, the carrier has said.

A cautionary tale for would-be newcomers to wireless

Similarly, it behooves companies looking to enter the wireless market to be involved in the development of 5G standards, said Mariam Sorond, vice president of technology development for Dish Network.

“I think what’s happening right now with 3GPP is that, for example, equipment availability is going to be geared toward operators with 4G deployments, and rightfully so. They need an evolutionary path to 5G; their evolution is going to be very different than [that of] new entrants,” Sorond said. “So new entrants … need a standalone version, not an upgraded version. Those timelines are being entirely decided by 3GPP. … Will the policymakers want to make a case for new entrants?”

CCA can play a role here, of course, serving as a conduit between members who can afford to send a representative to 3GPP conferences and those who simply don’t have that luxury. Regardless, the warning is the same for regional network operators as it is for behemoths like Comcast preparing to lumber into the wireless market: Make it a priority to keep up with the development of standards, and become involved if possible, or risk ceding a huge advantage to the nation’s largest wireless service providers. — Colin | @colin_gibbs