5G policy and technology collide at MWC Vegas

The MWC Vegas trade show kicked off this week with plenty of discussions about network slicing, network APIs and other advanced topics. But policy issues – including net neutrality and spectrum sharing – loomed over the proceedings.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

September 26, 2023

6 Min Read
CTIA Chief Meredith Attwell Baker speaks at MWC Vegas.
CTIA Chief Meredith Attwell Baker speaks at MWC Vegas.(Source: Mike Dano/Light Reading)

LAS VEGAS – MWC23 – Some of the biggest 5G providers in the US used this year's MWC Vegas trade show to show off their latest innovations. For example, T-Mobile made a series of announcements including the release of its first commercial network slicing product.

"This is such an exciting time," T-Mobile's John Saw said during his keynote appearance here. "We look forward to the incredible opportunities ahead."

But at the same time, the industry is facing several significant regulatory issues that could ultimately cut into Saw's upbeat tone. For example, the FCC's Democratic Chairwoman is planning to revive the net neutrality regulations that the industry managed to squelch during the early days of the Trump administration.

It's not yet clear whether those rules will cause problems for the companies looking to sell network slices. But it is possible considering the egalitarian, everyone-gets-the-same-Internet principles driving net neutrality would appear to run counter to the pay-for-a-better-slice promise of network slicing.

Further, the Biden administration still has not put forth a comprehensive plan to release more spectrum for 5G networks. And some early signals appear to indicate interest among regulators in shared spectrum – a position that runs directly against the desires of the US wireless industry.

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"We will need almost 1500MHz of spectrum in the next decade," said CTIA Chief Meredith Attwell Baker during her keynote appearance. CTIA is the nation's leading wireless trade association, and it has been pushing federal regulators to release more exclusive-use spectrum licenses – the kind that form the basis for most of the world's existing 5G networks.

Spectrum sharing solutions "aren't the answer," Baker said during her comments here.

A push against sharing

To bolster its argument, CTIA this week released a new study of the 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum band. That band stands as a prime example of the kind of sharing regime Biden officials are considering for other spectrum bands, including the lower 3GHz band.

"Recent drive tests commissioned by CTIA in eight US cities have found that low-power CBRS spectrum continues to be sparsely used, a striking contrast to licensed C-band spectrum, which is widely deployed just a year after the band was opened for commercial use," wrote Doug Brake, a CTIA executive who recently joined the trade association from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).

According to the CTIA's findings, exclusive-use spectrum allocations, like the C-band, are a more effective and efficient use of the nation's spectrum holdings. That argument dovetails with a report the CTIA put out last year blasting the CBRS band.

Related:Nokia touts Dish as the first user of its new API platform

Of course, CBRS proponents disagree. The OnGo Alliance, which promotes the use of sharing in the CBRS band, announced this week that there are now more than 350,000 devices broadcasting in the CBRS band, alongside more than 1,000 CBRS network operators. 

"CBRS continues to demonstrate its ability to revolutionize connectivity, serving as a pivotal enabler for diverse business use cases and expanding the horizons of wireless access," said Stephen Rayment, president of the OnGo Alliance, in a release.

The debate is important because the 5G industry is urging the Biden administration to reallocate the lower 3GHz band (3.1GHz-3.45GHz) from the Department of Defense (DoD) for 5G. But DoD officials have instead argued that the US military share the band with the 5G industry.

The lower 3GHz band is just one battleground. CTIA has urged for exclusive access to a range of other bands. And it has petitioned the Biden administration to firm up a position on the issue in advance of the ITU World Radiocommunication Conference 2023 (WRC-23) meeting in Dubai in November, where countries around the world will work to harmonize their spectrum plans.

By not having a firm 5G spectrum agenda, "we're allowing China and others to shape these decisions," Baker warned.

The innovation argument

While wireless policy wonks debate the merits of spectrum sharing and net neutrality, a wide range of companies in the industry used the first day of the MWC Vegas show to announce their latest developments.

Many of the announcements were geared to counter the perception of a broad slowdown in the US 5G industry. After all, US wireless providers are facing a reduction in the number of new wireless customers arriving onto their networks. And partly in response, they're cutting staff and reducing their spending on networking equipment.

But executives like T-Mobile's Saw argued that the 5G industry is just getting underway, and that technological innovation will lead to new opportunities.

"The 5G era is bigger than just more smartphone usage," Saw said.

He pointed to T-Mobile's growing fixed wireless access (FWA) business, noting that the additional network capacity created by T-Mobile's 5G network allows the carrier to offer in-home Internet services. Interestingly, he added that the average T-Mobile FWA customer consumes 450GB of data per month – putting T-Mobile's customers on equal footing with other wired Internet users, according to OpenVault.

But Saw also pointed to other T-Mobile 5G offerings, including an AI-powered wildfire detection system and a network by the carrier running in Boston Children's Hospital.

Network slicing was one of Saw's major focus areas. He noted that T-Mobile is now offering nationwide access to its network slicing testing service. He also said T-Mobile is now selling its first commercial network slice, as part of its new Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) offering, for security services.

"No other provider is doing this," he said.

APIs into the network

A final topic that's receiving plenty of interest lately is networking application programming interfaces (API). Such APIs could provide developers with access to new networking functions like quality of service and latency.

Already the global wireless industry is working to release a comprehensive, interoperable set of APIs through the GSMA.

According to GSMA Director Mats Granryd, 35 carriers have already joined the association's API program, and it has released its first batch of APIs.

"The momentum is really growing quickly," he said. "We will see many, many APIs developed in the coming years."

Ericsson and Nokia have both released API platforms for developers. Ericsson said it is initially working with Germany's Deutsche Telekom on the effort, while Nokia said Dish Network would be the first network operator to support its new API Network as Code platform.

But other operators will presumably join the effort. Indeed, T-Mobile's Saw noted that the operator is looking at ways to "expose useful network APIs."

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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