Tower Owners Should Play Lead Role in FirstNet — Former U.S. CTO

The tower industry needs to enter into public/private partnerships to help keep FirstNet, the proposed nationwide public safety network, within its budgetary constraints, Aneesh Chopra, former U.S. chief technology officer to the Obama administration, told the Virginia Wireless Association’s 4G 4VA? wireless seminar, Feb. 6, in Richmond, Va.

“What will the tower companies do to ensure that the $7 billion [earmarked for the network] will pay for infrastructure that will meet both public safety’s needs and commercial needs?” Chopra asked. “How many of you are already having conversations with public safety concerning tower locations? You shouldn’t wait.”

In his speech, entitled “Open Innovation –– Maximizing the Value of the National Wireless Initiative,” Chopra, now senior advisor, technology strategy, The Advisory Board Company, said he has held forums with the carriers, public safety and towers at the White House, and asked them if the industry has maximized the value of sharing and the answer was no. He did hold up Sprint’s Network Vision as a model for network sharing, which cuts 30-40 percent of opex costs.

“We haven’t even started. We pay lip-service the idea of sharing,” Chopra said. ““Now here is the golden opportunity. Since a rural tower is unprofitable for a carrier, what if we shared?” If you go to Europe, you will find that all networks share the same electronics in the cell site, he added.

FirstNet was a component of the President’s National Wireless Initiative, which passed at the end of 2011 as a part of the payroll tax bill. The legislation established volunteer incentive auctions of broadcaster spectrum, with a goal freeing up a total of 500 megahertz of spectrum.

Additionally, the National Wireless Initiative promotes innovation through spectrum sharing, unlicensed uses and provides $100 million for wireless research and development into network and spectrum sharing to help public safety.

“With more R and D, we can go even further,” Chopra said. “There are now sophisticated technologies that turn everything from hardware to software for even more sharing. Cloud-based RANs for example.”

Chopra suggested that the industry reverse the tradition of developing technology in urban environments and then subsidizing them in the rural venues.

“If we are going to invent a new economy built on widening access to information and building valuable products on top of it, why don’t we invent it first in rural areas and then export it elsewhere,” he said. “As we move to a [spectrum] sharing model, where we open up the highway lanes, if you will, there are large swaths of airwaves that are open and available for data traffic in rural areas,” he said.

President Obama’s thinking on technology has been influenced by India, which is going to provide fiber and 4G connectivity to each of their 600,000 villages during the next five years, leapfrogging into the 21st Century technologically, according to Chopra.

“This is happening all around the world in the global race to economic development and empowerment. What is our response to the global competitive movement?” he said. “The President has presented a strategy … to invest in the building blocks of innovation –– traditionally roads, railways and runways but now increasingly mobile broadband, human capital and research and development. Set rules of the road that will promote fair and open competition. Open up the government to every corner of the country so their talents can be applied to help solve some of the biggest challenges of our day.”

Digital infrastructure can be used to close the educational achievement gap, expand access to healthcare and grow access to capital, Chopra added.