Public policy will lay the foundation for 5G and beyond

This article is part of our Mobile World Congress Americas preview coverage. Other posts in this series highlight this increasingly global industry, IoThardware and analyst perspectives.

Public policy has probably never been more important for the U.S. wireless industry as it will be over the next several years. And the schedule for Mobile World Congress Americas underscores that.

Legislative and regulatory issues will play a major role at next week’s trade show, starting with the first keynote Tuesday featuring FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and CTIA CEO Margaret Attwell Baker. Other discussions include a panel analyzing the FCC’s incentive auction of 600 MHz spectrum, a look at unmanned aerial services hosted by CTIA Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Jackie McCarthy and a round table examining how the coming transition to 5G is spurring new efforts to streamline siting processes.

And that’s just day one.

Paving the way for small cells

Indeed, concerns regarding siting and approval processes have become a top priority for carriers that have become increasingly focused on small cells as they look to densify their networks to increase capacity and improve coverage. The antennas, which can be as small as a lunchbox, can be placed on “street furniture” such as lampposts or traffic lights as well as on the sides of buildings or other private property.

But the small-cell market has been stymied by zoning and permitting headaches. Transmitters are often placed on new poles that can be 120 feet high or taller, and confusion abounds regarding public rights-of-way. Those concerns have raised the ire of residents, community groups and municipalities seeking more control over small cell deployments in their markets.

“The town council of Ship Bottom, N.J., voted unanimously to approve changes to the town’s land use code, specifically targeting wireless infrastructure,” Robert Gutman of Guggenheim Equity Research wrote in a recent research note. “Additionally, the city council of Lancaster, PA changed its zoning rules to prevent the deployment of small cells on public rights-of-way. These towns are the latest are the latest examples of a trend we have been seeing—an increase of towns taking steps to slow down the deployment of small cells.”

CTIA has urged state governments to enact legislation to make it easier to deploy small cells, and at least 20 states are in various stages of moving forward with legislation that would grant small cell vendors easier access to public property. Those efforts have often been greeted with local pushback, though: More than 250 California cities have spoken against a proposed law that would significantly limit local control over small cell placements, for instance.

The FCC is hoping to intervene and continues to solicit comment on ways to improve rules and processes at the local, state and federal levels for rolling out small cells. But it faces a tough challenge in striking a balance between streamlining those rules and angering local residents and municipalities.

The ongoing quest for more spectrum

Perhaps even more crucial than the infrastructure concerns, though, is carriers’ eternal search for more spectrum. The incentive auction of 600 MHz ended just a few months ago, but operators are already urging the FCC and Congress to free up more mid- and high-band airwaves. That spectrum doesn’t propagate as well as lower bands, but it is capable of transmitting larger amounts of data at higher speeds—qualities that are vital as operators look to ramp up capacity to meet ever-increasing demand for mobile data.

The U.S. Senate recently introduced legislation aimed at establishing a “spectrum pipeline” by encouraging the government to make some of its spectrum available for commercial use. The AIRWAVES Act, as it is dubbed, would free up both licensed and unlicensed spectrum and calls for 10% of auction proceeds to be used to fund the buildout of wireless infrastructure in unserved and underserved rural areas.

“It turns 3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz into licensed spectrum, and it promises something above 6 GHz for unlicensed” use, said Roger Entner of Recon Analytics, who noted the bill’s broad support. “In a rare sign of bipartisanship, both the carrier-industry advocates and Internet advocates such as Public Knowledge support it.”

Additionally, the Senate recently passed the Mobile Now Act, which also prioritizes mid-band spectrum. Initially designed to meet the Obama administration’s declared plan to repurpose 500 MHz of government spectrum for commercial wireless broadband use, the bill mandates that at least 255 MHz of airwaves below 6 GHz be allocated for wireless mobile and fixed broadband use by the end of 2020, and requires a study examining the reallocation of six specific bands above 24 GHz.

The FCC is exploring ways to bring more spectrum to market as well. Last month it voted to adopt a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) exploring opportunities in spectrum bands between 3.7 GHz and 24 GHz, kicking off a comment period on three specific midrange spectrum bands: 3.7-4.2 GHz, 5.925-6.425 GHz and 6.425-7.125 GHz.

A coalition of wireless companies and industry groups is pushing for new access opportunities in the 3.7-4.2 GHz and 6 GHz bands. Founding members of the coalition include AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Google and Alphabet Access, Ericsson, Nokia, CTIA, Samsung, Wi-Fi Alliance, Intel, Cisco, Comsearch, Broadcom, HPE and the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI).

The FCC is also exploring ways to modify rules addressing CBRS airwaves to free up the 3.5 GHz spectrum, which carriers and their partners are anxious to get their hands on for 5G services. Those airwaves will be something of a testing ground for spectrum sharing between government agencies and private companies, which will be discussed during a three-hour session hosted by the CBRS Alliance Wednesday morning. You can bet U.S. carriers will be paying attention.