Top ten takeaways from the tower industry's terrific teleconference
The Wireless Infrastructure Association's Connect (X) trade show happened this week, albeit in a virtual setting. The event is the biggest of the year for the executives in the US cell tower industry – those charged with the physical task of building 5G.
I spent most of Tuesday watching and listening to the WIA's speakers, and here are my takeaways:
1. Virtual events don't totally suck
Frankly, this was one of my biggest takeaways as it appears increasingly likely that I'll remain homebound for the bulk of 2020.
WIA managed to create a wide range of compelling sessions, drawing in speakers from the nation's top tower companies and wireless service providers. Even better, most of the program was pre-recorded, which means sessions didn't suffer from the apparently ubiquitous problem of speakers forgetting to unmute themselves.
But the absolute best thing was that the event's top-level speakers participated in chats with audience members during their presentations. I cannot stress how useful this is. It's like being able to ask follow-up questions in real-time without bringing a speaker's presentation to a crashing halt for everyone else. It's awesome.
The other fun part was that audience members got to see the inside of executives' homes. Verizon's Heidi Hemmer appeared to give her keynote from her bedroom. Or possibly her guest bedroom. I think T-Mobile's Neville Ray was in his hallway. It was a nice hallway. And FCC Commissioner Michael O'Reilly freely admitted he was in his bedroom hiding from his noisy little kids. I'm pretty sure he was using an iPad.
As a fellow human being, I appreciated all this.
The drawback though, was that touring the event's virtual "exhibit hall" was even more unpleasant than touring a real-life exhibit hall.
Finally, WIA reported it drew at least 4,500 attendees to its event, which seems good.
2. The FCC is going to make macro tower upgrades easier
Likely timed with the WIA's show, the FCC announced this week it plans to vote on a proposal designed to make it easier for cell tower companies to upgrade existing macro cell towers.
As FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr explained, the FCC's new "5G Upgrade Order" would clarify 2014 rules around when cities and towns need to act on tower upgrade requests, what cell equipment equipment needs new local approvals, and how local governments should approach concealment and aesthetic conditions on cell towers.
"Once a tower is up, there shouldn't be much concern about taking old boxes down or putting new boxes up," Carr argued.
Executives in the tower industry generally cheered the news. David Weisman, CEO of tower company Insite Wireless Group, argued that the current rules "needlessly slow the process down," and he welcomed the new proposal.
However, it's important to note that the FCC's efforts to streamline the deployment of wireless infrastructure have generated some controversy in the past. For example, the agency's 2018 rules around small cells are in the midst of a courtroom challenge from a collection of mayors and others who argue the federal government shouldn't overrule local jurisdiction when it comes to cell towers and other such constructions.
3. 5G is moving forward
Almost without exception, tower industry executives expressed optimism about the pace and timing of 5G network buildouts, even during COVID-19 lockdown orders.
"We believe that digital infrastructure will grow during this pandemic," argued Marc Ganzi, the incoming CEO of Colony Capital and a longtime tower industry player.
Indeed, some executives said that coronavirus quarantines will only spur the construction of telecom services, including 5G. "I think this just shines a spotlight on where we're headed," said Alex Gellman, CEO of tower company Vertical Bridge.
And Jeff Stoops, CEO of tower giant SBA Communications, argued that the overall 5G opportunity remains in its infancy. He noted that "true 5G antennas" have only been deployed on 5% of macro tower sites.
Jay Brown, CEO of tower company Crown Castle, said he expects US operators to increase spending on 5G network buildouts starting in the second half of 2020. And Vertical Bridge's Gellan clarified he expects a "boom" to start the third quarter, likely in the August and September timeframe.
"I believe the 5G build cycle will be longer than the LTE upgrade cycle but not as steep each year. 5G deployment will accelerate once carriers gain visibility to monetization of the investment. That means both applications that make them money and service offerings that go beyond unlimited usage," Gellman added.
Executives generally pointed to a handful of catalysts for 5G in the US, including the upcoming CBRS and C-Band spectrum auctions, T-Mobile's five-year, $60 billion 5G buildout efforts, and Dish Network's plans to build a nationwide 5G network.
"Our confidence in [tower companies'] ability to attain this growth rate is quite high," wrote the analysts at Wall Street research firm Wells Fargo in their takeaways from the event.
4. Doubts about Dish nowhere to be found
Speaking of Dish Network's 5G ambitions, tower executives widely expressed optimism about the satellite TV company's plans to enter the wireless industry.
Indeed, many said they had early conversations with Dish about towers for its planned network buildout. And Gellman from Vertical Bridge said that he expects Dish to make use of a large percentage of the 15,000 tower sites that T-Mobile plans to decommission as it works to integrate its network with Sprint's network.
That tone is notable considering widespread skepticism on Wall Street that Dish will not be able to make good on its promises to construct a nationwide 5G network in the next few years.
5. The coronavirus wasn't caused by 5G
As federal authorities this week warned local US law enforcement of potential attacks on 5G cell towers, executives in the tower industry said they have not yet encountered any threats to their holdings.
That's important because a growing number of countries around the world have reported attacks on 5G cell towers by people who subscribe to the untrue conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was caused by the network technology.
6. Workforce shortfalls
Those in the cell tower industry have been warning for years that there aren't enough skilled technicians capable of climbing cell towers in order to install new 5G equipment.
"This is a critical issue," agreed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
"We're about ready to double or more the workloads out in the field," argued SBA's Stoops. "There is a lot [of work] that is coming."
And WIA CEO Jonathan Adelstein repeatedly hinted that lawmakers should funnel money and resources to the tower industry in order to finance training programs that could put the recently unemployed back to work atop cell towers.
"These jobs that are going to be created are going to be great paying jobs," Crown Castle's Brown said, adding that he believes such work will be needed for the next 15 years.
Niklas Heuveldop, CEO of Ericsson's North American business, said that there are roughly 29,000 tower technicians in the US today, and pointed to estimates that the sector will need another 20,000 more over the next ten years. He said Ericsson's three-year-old tower training program has already certified 600 tower climbers.
However, when questioned about that 20,000 estimate, SBA's Stoops said: "That number is too high. Don't know exactly what it is, but it is not that high."
7. No auction delays
Regulators in countries ranging from India to Austria have delayed 5G spectrum auctions due to the pandemic. But US regulatory officials said this week that their auctions remain on track.
Specifically, the FCC delayed its planned 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum auction by a month, to July, but officials at the WIA's show said that they don't expect any further delays.
8. Edge computing
Several major US tower companies have invested into data centers and edge computing companies during the past several years, and company executives argued at the WIA's show that the space still remains one to watch.
"Long-term, our assets will be very valuable for edge compute. We're starting to see some traction but the financial impact is still small," said Crown Castle's Brown.
"We are excited about MEC [mobile edge compute] and believe that tower assets are well-positioned to meet that need as it evolves," noted Steven Vondran, EVP and president of American Tower's US tower division.
T-Mobile's Ray confirmed the operator is working on mobile edge computing. "Not going to leave a stone unturned as we look to maximize the reach and capabilities of this 5G network," Ray explained, without providing details. "We have great latency performance today but are studying use cases and MEC benefits."
The topic was such that Ganzi, of Colony Capital, mentioned edge computing first in his list of areas for future investment.
9. But there wasn't anything new from the carriers
Although Verizon and T-Mobile have made 5G a centerpiece of their respective marketing messages – and both companies sent high-level speakers to the WIA show – neither company made any new announcements.
In fact, the WIA keynote presentations from T-Mobile's Ray and Verizon's Hemmer were surprisingly similar in their complete lack of new or newsworthy announcements.
And in that respect, the WIA's virtual conference was similar to real-life trade shows of years past: Sometimes they're surprisingly boring.
10. I guess I need to learn how to build a deck
I suppose this last takeaway isn't really relevant to anyone but me, but while trying to cover WIA's day-long Connect (X) trade show I also received orders from my spouse about the deck that needs to be constructed for our home.
And, like any well-trained peon, I replied with a curt, "yes, ma'am," and dutifully began researching the topic.
But the whole issue does help underscore our collective need to return to real-life trade shows, like pronto.