Wireless chief eyes ‘5G’ breakthrough

Greg Nash

"Spectrum, spectrum, spectrum.” That’s how Meredith Attwell Baker describes her priorities at CTIA-The Wireless Association, where she took the helm six months ago.

Baker is the top advocate for a broad swath of the wireless industry, including telecommunications companies such as AT&T and Verizon, payment systems such as PayPal Mobile and navigation tools such as OnStar, to name only a few.

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At the top of her agenda are the government’s spectrum auctions, which wireless companies hope will give them the resources they need to keep up with voracious consumer demand for streaming services on smartphones and tablets.

 Baker, 46, has a broad view of what’s at stake, having seen the industry evolve from her first stint at CTIA in the late 1990s.

 “I think then we had our first BlackBerrys in town,” she recalled during an interview in her office overlooking 16th Street NW in Washington. “And there were pagers.”

 “And now we are the connected life platform on which mobile health, education, connected cars is all going to run. It’s exciting, and every day you learn something.”

 In between the two stints at the trade group, Baker served as one of the five commissioners on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as well as in top positions in the Commerce Department, a consulting firm and with NBC Universal.

 The “spectrum, spectrum, spectrum” mantra “actually comes from my godson, who somehow was at our house when I was preparing for my confirmation hearing and he’s like, ‘That’s all you talk about: spectrum, spectrum, spectrum.’ ”

“I’ve been privileged to be part of several different sides of that.”

She also sees the advantage of the airwaves in her personal life, on one of her “several” phones and wearable devices.

“I’m passionate about the industry, so I want to try as many different things as I can,” she said. “I might’ve been the happiest person in Whole Foods the other day when I first used my Apple Pay.”

“I think no matter what your business is, it’s connected to the wireless industry at this point, and so it’s important to our economy.”

 The wireless industry is hoping to pave the way to expansion at a pair of FCC-managed auctions that will give more companies control of the airwaves for the first time in five years.

 One auction began selling off prized “AWS-3” airwaves currently held by the Defense Department and other agencies last week. Already, the auction has generated well more than $38 billion for the federal government, a wildly successful result that has been cheered by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

A second auction pegged for 2016 is expected to be even larger, but also more complicated. In that transaction, the FCC will buy airwave licenses from TV broadcast companies, repackage them, and then resell them to wireless companies such as AT&T and Verizon. The agency has said that it expects that auction to raise about $45 billion.

Money that the government takes in from the two auctions will go to fund a national emergency responder communications network and to pay down the federal deficit.

For the wireless companies and their millions of subscribers, the auctions should lead to faster-than-ever speeds surfing the Internet.

“That will probably be our 5G platform,” Baker said, which she expected would start rolling out around 2020.

“The sooner we can get that spectrum in the hands of the commercial broadband providers, the better edge we’re going to have in developing a 5G economy,” she added.

Going forward, engineers will have to work harder than ever to get the most out of the nation’s limited airwaves.

“The next spectrum battles are going to be battles,” Baker said. “As we look for spectrum, it’s not going to be as easy. There aren’t as many low-hanging fruits.”

“We’re going to have to be really technical about how we approach it.”

The wireless industry’s other major vexing problem is net neutrality, the concept that every Internet user should have equal access to the Web, no matter which sites or services they visit.

The FCC has been working on new rules for months, after a top appeals court tossed out the agency’s first version of the regulations. Those previous rules, which Baker opposed as one of the two Republican FCC commissioners at the time, did not apply to wireless companies providing access to the Internet, only wired broadband.

This time around, however, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler hinted that the new rules would apply to wireless traffic as well.

Most people don’t notice a difference between the Internet on their phones and on their laptops, supporters of broader rules say, so neither should the FCC’s regulations.

President Obama is among those arguing for a broader approach, arguing the rules “have to reflect the way people use the Internet today, which increasingly means on a mobile device.”

“I believe the FCC should make these rules fully applicable to mobile broadband as well, while recognizing the special challenges that come with managing wireless networks,” Obama said.

Baker and other wireless industry proponents are fighting the proposal.

“Mobile is different in the fact that it’s not at all the same,” Baker said. “They may look the same to the consumer, but the technical complexity, I think everyone understands.”

For one, cable wires can send massive amounts of data more easily than airwaves and, unlike with a fixed connection, people on wireless devices are constantly on the move. Companies argue they should be able to slow speeds of some users at peak hours, when their networks get congested.

Supporters of the wireless industry note that there are four national companies — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint. Meanwhile, three-quarters of the country “have no competitive choice” for high-speed wired broadband service, as Wheeler has noted.

Wireless companies say they should be able to offer specialized service to gain a competitive edge. T-Mobile’s Music Freedom offer, for instance, allows people to listen to unlimited amounts of streaming music from a variety of Web services such as Pandora and Rhapsody without it counting against their data limits.

Tough net neutrality rules could spell the end of that.

“We want competitors to be able to differentiate themselves,” Baker said. 

“If they’re not offering what you want, then you can walk across the mall and get something different.”