WIA heads to Atlanta for Connect (X) and some rock 'n' roll

  • Organizers are expecting 3,500 - 4,000 attendees at this year’s Connect (X)

  • It’s an infrastructure show – and even though capex is down among the Big 3 wireless carriers, WIA remains optimistic

  • Federal funds for broadband are stoking enthusiasm

Fierce had a chance to catch up with Patrick Halley, president and CEO of the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA) ahead of the Connect (X) 2024 conference, which takes place this week in Atlanta.

Let’s just say, he’s ready to rock 'n' roll, and not in your traditional trade show manner of walking show floors, attending (and giving) keynotes and hob-dobbing with friends old and new. No, he’s actually going to be performing guitar and vocals with the band Harmful Interference (clearly, pun intended) on Wednesday evening.

TL;DR version: Halley worked at the FCC during the administrations of former chairmen Julius Genachowski and Tom Wheeler, which is where he heard about an FCC band that would occasionally jam out in conference rooms after work. It wasn’t too formal – they may have played at an FCC International Bureau party or something of that nature. That’s where he met some of the current members of Harmful Interference.

Fast-forward and the band became official in the spring of 2019, with the “quickly achieved goal of becoming the world’s greatest telecom lawyer rock band,” according to its website. They’ve since played gigs like Law Rocks Washington, D.C.

Band members hail from the FCC, Meta, USTelecom, Verizon, WIA and Somos, specializing in mostly ’80s pop and rock. Think songs like “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds and “Just What I Needed” by The Cars.  

It’s show time

OK, on with the (trade) show … The Connect (X) program roster reads like a Who’s Who in wireless. In recent years, the event’s content has garnered favorable reviews from even the most grizzled members of the trade press. This year’s seven conference tracks promise to deliver once again.

“It’s really the one industry event in the U.S. that brings together every single element of the wireless infrastructure ecosystem,” including wireless carriers and tower companies, as well as fiber, small cells, satellite, data centers and all the other services and contractors that support them, Halley said.  

Will the vibe at this show be significantly different from past years? It’s no secret that carrier spending is down after the initial 5G buildout, which typically happens after a new generation of technology is introduced.

Halley said there’s room for optimism. Carriers haven’t built out all of their mid-band 5G spectrum and tower companies reported seeing more siting applications in Q1 than prior quarters. As consumers’ appetite for data continues to grow, carriers will need to find more ways to beef up capacity.

“I’m very optimistic about our wireless future,” he said.

Policy track

Earlier this year, the Biden Administration released the National Spectrum Strategy Implementation Plan, which identified spectrum in the lower 3 GHz band and 7-8 GHz for further study.

It’s a positive step that spectrum has been identified for potential commercial use, but “I think we need to accelerate the process as much as possible,” Halley said.

Still, he gives the administration credit for trying to streamline the cell site permitting process, certainly on federal lands but also by working with state and local broadband offices to accelerate the review process.

Where a longer environmental or historic review is warranted, that’s fine. “But let’s try to make sure that we’re not slowing down progress on deployment merely through regulatory inertia,” he said.

That said, the relationship between the wireless industry and local government officials is a lot different today than it was five or 10 years ago. Back then, it was a more antagonistic relationship. These days, it’ s much more of a partnership mode, he said.

There will always be challenges at the local level, but “overall, I think we’ve got a pretty positive relationship,” in part because there’s so much federal money flowing out of Washington, D.C, these days.

Wheeling and dealing

WIA expects anywhere from 3,500 to 4,000 attendees this year compared to last year’s attendance of about 3,000.

It’s definitely a show that brings together suppliers and buyers. “There’s a lot of deal-making that goes on at our show,” he said.

Halley will deliver welcome remarks on Wednesday morning alongside Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and give a keynote on Thursday as well.  

If you miss either of those events, you can always catch him Wednesday evening at the Music Movement & Connect (X) Charity Concert. That’s where Harmful Interference will be the opening act for country pop singer Niko Moon.

“We try to have fun and do some real work while we’re at it,” Halley quipped.