Serving the demands of the cellular industry

A decade ago, no one expected wireless capabilities or the number of mobile phone users to reach what they have today. Part of Tom Power’s job is to find the right mix of solutions to manage the resources that make those numbers possible

Unflattering depictions of trade organizations often outline one-sided lobbying efforts or intransigent opponents dug in on opposing sides. That’s a problem when trade groups represent a resource that’s in short supply and services that have become indispensible to the general public’s daily lives.

But every once in a while, all the players come together cooperatively to determine the best ways to serve the public in an industry that is expected to continue experiencing exponential growth for the foreseeable future.

Welcome to the world of Tom Power, senior vice president and general counsel of the Cellular Telephone Industries Association (CTIA).

The organization’s focus is to help members find the most efficient ways to allocate a finite amount of the wireless spectrum while mobile data is expected to increase by more than 600 percent and require 50 percent more of the spectrum within three years, according to a study commissioned by CTIA.

In the United States alone, more than 20,300 unlicensed devices have been certified for use in the 2.4 GHz spectrum band, and there are more mobile devices in operation than there are individuals making up the entire US population.

These challenges help illustrate the extent of innovations in wireless technology, which have become so pervasive that consumers view wireless products and services much like they do traditional utilities; consumers expect them to be available anywhere and everywhere, at any time.

“Innovation is best served by less regulation that allows engineers and business people to find the most effective solutions.”

For Power, that means roughly 300 million lobbyists are in favor of CTIA’s membership to continue providing expanding service. But like real estate, no one is creating more spectrums for carriers to utilize.

“As we try to address these issues, I find that what all the parties want isn’t that different,” Power says. “That may be unique to the spectrum world because it results in such a variety of benefits—consumer convenience, job creation, supporting the mission of federal and public safety agencies, and generating funds for the treasury when spectrum auctions are held. It’s a win for everyone.”

He characterizes the search for solutions as possibly “the last bastion of bipartisanship” among regulators and the US Congress.

In addition to building consensus among members, CTIA hosts an annual trade show and certifies labs around the world that ensure device and technology compliance with existing standards. The organization also addresses communication regulation policy. Power points to the success of Wi-Fi to illustrate CTIA’s value and ongoing position regarding regulation.

When first proposed, there was great concern from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that the unlicensed spectrum in which Wi-Fi operates does not provide interference protection between bands.

“That was perceived as a risk, but it worked out fantastically, and we now have new technologies handling huge amounts of traffic,” he says. “That’s an example of how innovation is best served by less regulation that allows engineers and business people to find the most effective solutions.”

More bandwidth is expected to become available in 2016 as the result of an upcoming, first of its kind two-sided auction. The FCC will pay participating television broadcasters for their spectrum, which will then be auctioned back to wireless carriers.

Part of Power’s job is to find the right balance. “We think an ‘all of the above’ approach is best since all solutions require some adjustment by all sides,” he explains. “For example, organizations have to adapt operations when they give up bandwidth, or some member companies might be less able than others to jump into promising new technologies. It really is a giant puzzle with lots of pieces that have to fit together.”

As leaders reach decisions about how to move forward with expanding technologies operating in finite spectrums, Power, CTIA, and its members face new challenges.

Greater capacity means battery technology will need to improve. The burgeoning Internet of Things demands that attention be directed toward latency issues and prioritizing activities that include safety capabilities, such as vehicle-to-vehicle communication. There are also competing technologies, like 5G, that must be addressed by CTIA and regulators.

“Everyone wants to advance the economy,” Power says. “Everyone wants to protect critical capabilities that enable first responders and military users to do their jobs.

“And we all want to ensure an environment that fosters innovation,” he adds. “So as an organization, we have to be smart about how we move forward. We have to identify the initiatives that will do the most good for the most people.”

Wireless Capabilities

  • The impact of wireless services is staggering. Its scope goes well beyond the telecommunications industry and impacts the world economy significantly.
  • According to Cisco, there were 227 million smartphones, 15.6 million tablets, and 29.3 million wearable devices in North America in 2014.
    By 2019, those numbers are expected to reach 324 million, 46 million, and 170.3 million, respectively.
  • The Brattle Group estimates that the licensed spectrum has a $400 billion annual impact on the American economy.
  • The Progressive Policy Institute calculated that the app economy generated 752,000 jobs in 2013.
  • The Consumer Electronics Association estimates that the unlicensed spectrum is valued at $62 billion annually.