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Last week the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a hearing on the future of broadband infrastructure. The hearing focused on learning from wireless industry experts about issues impacting the development of broadband services in the United States. Members looked at draft legislation to streamline the permitting and siting process at the federal level to spur private sector investment, and bring increased and more efficient broadband across the country. During this hearing, subcommittee members were particularly interested in the informational needs about the reach and performance of mobile broadband networks.
The subcommittee released a Discussion Draft for a bill to “facilitate the deployment of communications infrastructure by providing for an inventory of Federal assets for use in connection with such deployment, to streamline certain Federal approvals of communications facilities, and for other purposes.” As you can see, this potential bill and other legislation impacts the entire wireless and broadband industry, but there are key aspects to which the tower industry should pay close attention.
Although not linked directly to the hearing, Congressman Dave Loebsack (IA-2) recently introduced legislation named “The Rural Wireless Act of 2017” (HR 1546) that would require the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to establish standards for collecting wireless coverage data.
Towers vs Small Cells
We all know the regulatory process has not kept pace with the current level of innovation and technological advancements of the wireless industry. Tall towers still have their place in the industry, but small cells, co-located antennas and Lit commercial and retail buildings have grown tremendously, providing much needed coverage and capacity for the data-intensive consumer of today.
Steven Berry, one of my fellow witnesses and president and CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association, made a strong visual argument for the need to completely realign the current processes of reviewing, approving and even funding key infrastructure such as towers. “Deploying the latest wireless infrastructure is totally different than constructing a large tower. Now I ask you to imagine a 250-foot tower. Now let me show you today’s tower,” said Berry as a staff member dropped a small cell on the table in front of him. “This is the new tower. And they’re getting smaller, believe it or not.”
His visual aid helped illustrate the argument for which we are both advocates. I then proceeded to build upon the points made by Mr. Berry, stressing the need for more accurate, timely coverage data. While I intended to circle back and reiterate my strong support for the tower side of the industry, our panel was unfortunately cut short as the committee members were called to a vote.
The Importance of Accurate Data
We have made our case with the FCC before on flaws and limitations to the current wireless coverage and infrastructure assets (like towers and small cells) data sets. It’s important because operators and companies owning and managing infrastructure assets depend on these data sets to make critical business decisions on where and when to invest in their networks. And unfortunately, the current Federal data falls short in both accuracy and the completeness needed for businesses and the government to make important, informed decisions.
We appreciate what the FCC is trying to do in support of businesses and consumers, but are also strong advocates for the FCC to work with the private sector to help get things on the right track. The FCC’s recent Mobilty Fund Phase II Order and NPRM requests industry input into the informational needs associated with Mobility Fund Phase II was a great first step and appreciated by many.
Building the Networks of Tomorrow
Billions of government dollars will be spent on infrastructure in the next decade, and even more from the private sector. But, while 5G and small cells are increasingly in the consciousness of many, the networks of today are already in need of improved coverage and higher capacity.
To manage the networks of today while we build for the networks of tomorrow, we must have databases that are more accurate and easier to access and manage.
The care and maintenance of infrastructure assets are better served by leveraging more accurate and timely data from private-sector databases. In fact, there are hundreds of thousands of duplicates and discrepancies in the current Federal tower database, known as the ASR. For example, the ASR is missing over 100,000 towers and other vertical assets that are not in the registry. This doesn’t even include the hundreds of thousands of assets on buildings, speculative sites, or other locations that may not require a listing in the ASR.
“Without good maps, you can’t tell where the problems are. The issue I have is maps of tower sites,” noted Thomas A. “Tam” Murray, chairman of the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA) Board of Directors. “I get into a county and they say, ‘well where are the other towers?’”
Accurate Data, New Opportunities
Mosaik is in the business of providing accurate, timely and unbiased data to our customers. We track, verify and report on a broad range of key aspects within the wireless ecosystem. With TowerSource, which is the industry’s largest and most comprehensive independent vertical asset database, we deliver a unique view into the ecosystem to our customers. A view that can also be of great value to state and federal agencies.
Our goal is to expand the role of infrastructure data into different and new use cases than have been contemplated before. By helping provide a truly useful clearinghouse of information, we can paint a more accurate picture of the current landscape and competitive marketplace. We are non-partisan and unbiased, as the integrity of data is the core of our business. There are many other databases out there, but many are relying on the FCC as their main source.
A Few Final Thoughts
As radio networks rely more on small cells, it is imperative that regulatory barriers be reduced. There will continue to be a need for new macro sites, but most believe the number of small cells installed over the next five years will dwarf the number of new towers. It is only by reducing regulatory barriers that we can expect to increase the speed and lower the cost of deploying mobile networks, which are at the core of daily life and safety of local, state and federal constituents everywhere.
As local, state and federal governments look to improve wireless network quality for their constituents, they must also understand where existing assets are deployed.
Anyone who has spent time researching tower sites, spectrum licenses or mobile network coverage in the federal databases knows all too well that the information is out of date and inadequate. Although it can be a good starting point, your research seldom ends there.
Having a more accurate picture of where industry players do or don’t have infrastructure assets in place is critical, but having more visibility into traffic and usage patterns along with demographic and topography variables would also be useful as the government moves forward with enormous infrastructure investments.
Our testimony is only one perspective on these issues, but it is essential for our nation and the telecommunications industry that we get the data right. It was evident by the questions asked by committee members in last week’s hearing that the desire to expand and enhance the networks is a bipartisan issue. Several congressmen also asked about how to speed up the process. Maybe the best way to begin is to not reinvent the wheel. Leveraging a variety of existing data from the private sector could fast-track this undertaking. And considering how much was spent on the previous effort when the government decided to start from scratch, it might save the taxpayers a bundle as well.
(Editor’s note: Managing Editor Jim Fryer founded but no longer owns TowerSource.)
By Bryan Darr, President and CEO, Mosaik
March 31, 2017