Infrastructure will play a critical role in meeting the challenges of the looming “wireless data crunch,” said Jonathan Adelstein, President and CEO of PCIA – The Wireless Infrastructure Association, during his keynote address at the 2013 Winnik International Telecoms & Internet Forum.  Mr. Adelstein explained that while more spectrum and more efficient use of spectrum are components of the solution, these approaches will not be sufficient to prevent service degradation or rationing of wireless data through pricing structures.  What is needed in the U.S. are infrastructure solutions that allow for denser networks, cell splitting, and spectrum re-use, he said.  These solutions are complex and take time, requiring the deployment of tens of thousands of small cells, including distributed antenna systems (DAS), heterogeneous networks (HetNets), picocells, and Wi-Fi.  While Mr. Adelstein praised the efforts of U.S. policymakers to streamline the deployment of small cells, citing the President’s Executive Order making it easier to build broadband infrastructure on federal lands, Congress’ wireless siting legislation limiting the ability of local governments to hinder antenna collocations on existing towers, and the Federal Communications Commission’s tower siting shot clock and pole attachment rules, he maintained that more work is needed to ensure that small cells are a viable solution.  The infrastructure challenges abroad are equally thorny, and include access to tall infrastructure, deployment of neutral host infrastructure, development of backhaul solutions, and the expanded use of small cells.  Mr. Adelstein concluded by emphasizing that these issues are not simply about towers and antennas; they are about what wireless communications enable: economic opportunities, health care, education, public safety, and more. 

Numerous panelists drilled down on the themes of Mr. Adelstein’s keynote address.  Discussing the challenges of the data wireless crunch, Stagg Newman of McKinsey & Company put it simply: the need for speed paces infrastructure deployment and outpaces policy.  The policy issues consist of “poles and holes” and “sites and rights” problems that policymakers worldwide must resolve.  In doing so, they must solve different challenges in different countries.  In the U.S., for example, 90% of homes are passed by hybrid fiber-coaxial networks capable of supporting 100 Mbps, which could suffice for the next 10 years or so, but would eventually become inadequate.  The problem in other countries is more pressing.  Most homes in Australia, for example, are passed by long copper loops, which could strand residents at 50 Mbps over the same 10-year period.  Still other countries face even more fundamental problems related to access generally, regardless of speed.  While the world’s infrastructure challenges are daunting, Mr. Newman believes that industry will rise to meet them, even if policymakers do not.

Focusing on the U.S., Rick Cimerman, Vice President of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, lauded the cable industry’s ability to push fiber out, noting that since 1996 Internet connection speeds have increased 900% while prices have gone down.  Mr. Cimerman explained that cable is rising to meet future challenges by deploying the largest Wi-Fi network in the country, with over 127,000 active hotspots already in use and tens of thousands more in the offing.  The policy implications of cable’s Wi-Fi buildout are manifold, touching on access issues related to poles, streetlights, buildings, and even cable’s strand that runs between poles.  While most communities recognize and embrace the benefits of Wi-Fi, certain unregulated entities, particularly some municipal and cooperative utilities, see an opportunity to exploit their monopoly resources and stifle this broadband infrastructure solution.  Mr. Cimerman called for action to prevent these abuses, particularly against cooperative utilities that stifle broadband in rural communities where it is needed most.

Michael McKenzie, Chief Strategy Officer at Grain Management, agreed with Mr. Adelstein’s observation that the mobile Internet is generating exponential growth in data consumption and corresponding network capacity challenges.  Mr. McKenzie also agreed that the solution to these challenges must involve massive infrastructure investment.  In emerging markets in particular, the solution must focus on the expansion of the neutral host model, or “passive infrastructure sharing” where independent tower and infrastructure companies lease space to competing wireless carriers.  Citing Brazil, Mr. McKenzie explained that a “near-ideal” environment for a neutral host model was one in which the wireless market was divided equally between multiple carriers.  He also observed that a key catalyst for infrastructure sharing is a spectrum auction, explaining that when a regulator sees the benefit of auctioning, it suggests a corresponding market for increased sharing and tenancy on independently owned infrastructure.  In the U.S., Mr. McKenzie applauded the efforts of the FCC and Congress to promote infrastructure deployment, and stated that industry should continue to engage municipalities in a “win-win” dialogue to encourage them to compete on being broadband friendly.

Concentrating on the benefits of mobile wireless, Michel Rogy, ICT Policy Advisor at The World Bank, elaborated on its potential to alleviate poverty, stimulate development, and empower individuals worldwide, such as by providing market pricing for the day’s catch to independent fisherman in Africa.  Given these benefits, Mr. Rogy noted that all developing countries are convinced that they need to push their broadband agendas.  This involves identifying the mix of technologies to deploy affordable broadband, including submarine cables and broadband links that institutions such as The World Bank, can promote through the use of public-private partnerships.