In 1996, Chip Pickering, CEO of INCOMPAS, while serving on Senator Trent Lott’s staff, helped shape the Telecommunications Act of 1996. At the time, it was the first major overhaul of the U.S. telecoms law since 1934, and resulted in the opening of competition among long distance carriers in the United States. The Act spawned an entire industry that continues to evolve as we know it today and into the future.
On the other hand, Jonathan Adelstein, President and CEO of the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA) fell into the telecommunications space after serving for fifteen years as a staff member in the United States Senate. In 2002, Adelstein was unanimously confirmed, twice by the Senate, to serve as Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), where he served until 2009. During his tenure as FCC Chair, Adelstein worked hard to ensure access to communications for everyone.
Both Adelstein and Pickering were hands-on in executing the vision of the U.S. elected officials and leaders, bringing us through one of the most formidable communications infrastructure periods of our time — until now. Now, Adelstein and Pickering continue to tirelessly lead the communications infrastructure industry from their positions as the heads of leading associations, working to ensure the vision for open and competitive communications remains just that. At the NEDAS Washington D.C. Symposium on November 21, 2019, I had the honor to sit down with both of these eminent industry minds. A few notes and ideas that attendees garnered from the conversation can be found below.
For some background, the Wireless Infrastructure Association represents carriers, infrastructure providers and professional services firms that own and manage more than 130,000 telecommunications facilities around the world. From wireless carriers to Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs), carriers, edge data center providers, tower operators, manufacturers and more — Adelstein’s leadership focuses on advancing policies that speed wireless broadband deployment, reduce costs and educate lawmakers, municipalities, government officials and more. This ensures an open and competitive marketplace focused on driving innovation.
On the wireline side, INCOMPAS, the Internet and Competitive Networks Association, advocates for competition policy across all networks. Member companies range from local, regional and national network providers, cable operators, and service providers to hyperscalers including Amazon, Facebook, and Google, as well as vendors serving the industry. We learned that while infrastructure is a key driver for enablement, INCOMPAS focuses on ensuring the data transmitted over the infrastructure is accessible and available to as many people as possible. With a growing interest in streaming services, content delivered over the internet and more — it was more evident than before that the WIA and INCOMPAS are truly complementary and are taking positions that aim in the same direction. This is resulting in a truly bi-partisan approach to our nation’s infrastructure boon.
During the discussion, we also learned about both organizations’ passion to empower the workforce. It didn’t escape me during the discussion to note that part of the workforce challenges we have today are in part driven by the 1996 Telecommunications Act. For instance, when Pickering was part of the team writing the regulation, did they appreciate the enormity of what they were enabling? Hindsight is certainly 20/20, especially as we approach the year 2020 with staff shortages and a workforce mindset that is self-driven and learned rather than mentored through apprenticeships. Reflecting on how we all got to where we were, Adelstein shared the WIA’s initiative of an apprenticeship program, which now has over 2,000 members. The program focuses on providing basic industry education and hands-on programs that allow the workforce to be better equipped and educated about cell tower and antenna installations, fiber splicing and more.
Another topic explored was the importance of everyone in the industry — especially the frontline sales and business development professionals — in understanding and appreciating the regulatory hurdles we face in delivering the communications infrastructure of tomorrow. While the Federal Government is focused on ensuring a fair, open and competitive market, we discussed the challenges that everyone faces on a local level as municipalities juggle priorities and information without background, details or an industry-insider perspective of what is really needed to enable a smart city. In other words, driving educational opportunities at the municipal level is of key importance. Pickering remarked that INCOMPAS is working on initiatives to help provide local governments with timelines to stick to for decisions on matters raised in order to ensure there is a continuing and consistent focus on communications enablement. It was made very clear that both organizations are eager to help educate, provide learning opportunities, and deliver guidance on how to provide permitting and pricing of solutions serving our local communities. Another of the topics explored was the idea of bringing back trade schools in our public school systems. Community Colleges do a terrific job, but we have to start earlier and provide both intellectual education as well as hands-on education to ensure we can literally build the future we envision.
A quick round of remarks discussed the ‘edge’ and networks, and both Adelstein and Pickering called out a company in the New York/New Jersey region called ZenFi Networks. Led by Ray LaChance, the company has re-architected traditional network deployment to deliver a new breed of network and spearhead a ‘horizontal tower’ architecture. In this model, ZenFi Networks designs and deploys traditional fiber networks. However, along the way they provide access points at each manhole and pole top for lateral connections — thereby labeling the new, modern, highly dense and accessible network design as the horizontal tower.
Exploring the question of priorities, we all agreed that it’s a builder’s market now, and we have to be able to fortify our infrastructure today in order to enable tomorrow’s vision of smart everything. As a result, we have to be patient, educate and facilitate.
We then segued to a ‘Hot or Not’ topic session where both Adelstein and Pickering agreed that both small cells and CBRS are hot. When asked about DAS, the enthusiasm dwindled. As a matter of fact, an attendee asked me why we weren’t having more discussions about DAS, and I kindly replied “DAS is doing what it’s supposed to. There are no major innovations or changes to focus on, so having the same conversations would be moot. It’s not that it doesn’t matter anymore, it’s that there are so many more solutions and infrastructure designs to consider — and we have to learn and understand them all better.”
Commenting on some of the discussions that took place earlier in the day, Adelstein referred back to the investment and telecom deployment financing conundrum facing real estate owners. Paraphrasing his comments, Adelstein remarked on how he can now see that real estate owners wouldn’t require plumbers to install toilets and sinks as part of their service — nor would electricians install their own switches. These are unique elements selected by tenants, and the plumbers and electricians ensure that the hook-ups to enable use are there. So too should the building owners. Once ‘wired’ for success, a tenant can then customize the solution to meet their unique needs.
The seating arrangements during the fireside chat with Adelstein and Pickering were rather intentional and meant to highlight the core NEDAS focus on enabling and facilitating the wireline and wireless convergence. The NEDAS tagline says it best: ‘Where Wireline and Wireless Meet.’ Sitting between Adelstein and Pickering highlighted the importance of convergence for both of these esteemed leaders. During our discussion, both Adelstein and Pickering remarked on how much more both organizations should and could do to work together. They note that this would help guide their member organizations as they look at how building out the infrastructure (WIA) truly enables data to move more effectively between networks (INCOMPAS).
While NEDAS doesn’t focus on regulatory matters and lobbying, we do focus on education and workforce development issues at a grassroots level. With the ‘aha’ moment shared among Adelstein and Pickering, as the President of NEDAS I had the chance to reiterate our commitment to being a channel that conveys what each organization is doing to help bridge communications for everyone. I can only hope that the opportunities presented and explored will become a reality. As the industry develops, here at NEDAS, we look forward to continuing to find and drive opportunities that propel the industry forward, engaging in hand-to-hand combat with some of the brightest and best minds out there.
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