View From the Top Panel Discusses Strengths, Weaknesses of Towers


With three strong carriers, a fourth carrier actively building out nationally and a lot of spectrum, speakers on the “View From the Top” panel on the second day of Connect (X) in Denver, said the outlook is extremely good for towers and for wireless infrastructure. However, uncertainty in the economy, nationally and around the world, is having an impact more than in the past. 

Moderated by Jonathan Adelstein, President and CEO, the panel comprised Alex Gellman, CEO and Co-founder, Vertical Bridge; Steve Vondran, Executive Vice President and President, U.S. Tower Division, American Tower Corporation; Jeff Stoops, Director, President and CEO, SBA Communications; and Jay Brown, CEO, Crown Castle International. 

“If you look at the last two downturn cycles, the tech crash and the mortgage crisis, neither one of them really touched our business day to day,” said Gellman. “But right now, we’re definitely being impacted every day by rising costs, a tight labor market, and from a debt cost standpoint.” Vertical Bridge’s debt cost has grown by 2 and a half percent since February when it did its last securitization. 

Jeff Stoops, SBA Communications, said that with wireless firmly established as a staple, even with the tough times ahead, 5G growth will not be affected. “I think there is a very long road of activity,” he said. “A lot of work must be done to complete the coverage maps and then there is so much densification to allow the kinds of new use cases of 5G and the further demand on the network.”

The panel shared their disappointment in the rules that were issued from NTIA that favor fiber in its $42.5 billion Broadband Equity Access & Deployment program, which supports the build out of broadband to close the digital divide.

“The most cost effective way to deploy broadband for all would be to do it wirelessly,” said Jay Brown, Crown Castle International. “And while it doesn’t look like that’s the way it’s going, I think, I think we have tried to be supportive as an industry. As a voice from a public policy standpoint, we’ve shown over a long period of time that we can deploy the infrastructure, most efficiently, most effectively over large areas and do that wirelessly.”

Brown noted that of the $40 billion Crown has spent on infrastructure in the U.S. between towers, fiber and small cells, $10 billion has been invested in underserved communities. “I would argue that we are already delivering infrastructure that enables broadband for all and those underserved communities, and we’re going to continue to do that.”

Adelstein noted that rural users will have to wait a long time to get fiber, enduring two year backlogs just to get fiber orders filled. Stoops agreed but he still said he believes wireless will benefit from the funding of fiber.

“I don’t necessarily see it as a zero sum game with wireless because 5G and wireless mobility requires fiber,” Stoops said. “So the more fiber that gets put down, the better chances are that you’re ultimately going to get radios and antennas hung in those locations, which is really at its core what we’re all about.”

On a more positive note, the NTIA made wireless eligible for workforce development funding, specifically naming apprenticeships as a way to get it done. Adelstein sounded a note of urgency about putting that money to work to expand the wireless workforce. “We lobbied hard and said there’s a shortage of skilled workers out there,” Adelstein said. “They put us on the same level as fiber in terms of his priority for funding.” 

Gellman said that the workforce shortage is one of the most important issues that WIA will be working on for the next five to 10 years. “Clearly, workforce is under pressure. Clearly, there’s a lot of activity we can see coming. And there’s bottlenecks in the workforce,” he said. “I think it’s going to really ramp up and take off, and maybe state by state as well as federal. I think there’s a real broad opportunity to do good, and do the right thing and help everybody get this infrastructure deployed.”

Steve Vondran, Executive Vice President and President, U.S. Tower Division, American Tower Corporation, said the wireless industry needs to go beyond just expanding the workforce and diversify it. “We need to recruit more young people into our workforce. We need to all evangelize that,” he said. “We need to embrace different communities to bring talent in because we’re having trouble recruiting talent into the industry, especially for jobs that aren’t sitting at a desk.”

By J. Sharpe  Smith, Inside Towers Technology Editor

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