AT&T's Cicconi: Fiber, tower infrastructure is the secret sauce for 5G

AT&T (NYSE: T), like its other wireless competitors, is keen on the future capabilities that 5G wireless will bring. But in order to support those rollouts, which will be driven on small cells, the service provider will need access to various local infrastructure platforms.

The service provider recently told investors that its macrosite network is roughly 90 percent of the size it will be in five years, while its small-cell buildout is only 5 to 10 percent of where AT&T expects it to be by that point.

AT&T has been taking a holistic approach to its fiber build out, where it will target not only residential customers with its 1 Gbps GigaPower service, but also find ways to leverage it for wireless backhaul and business services.

Jim Cicconi, SVP for AT&T, told attendees during the recent TIA 2016 conference in Dallas that wireless operators will need access to different infrastructure, including fiber and rights-of-way along existing utility poles to install small cells.

Cicconi echoed points made by FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who outlined five key points about how to drive 5G wireless deployments in the U.S.

"The most important point I thought she made, especially as we look toward 5G, was focused on the idea that we need more infrastructure," Cicconi said. "We need more fiber and this is the secret sauce for 5G and I think the FCC would have helped us along if they looked at hard at current policy and rules are providing incentives for carriers to build more network infrastructure."

Under Jessica Rosenworel's five-step proposal for 5G, the commissioner said that having tower and wireline backhaul infrastructure is just as important as having enough spectrum to deliver services to consumers and businesses.

"In wireless policy spectrum gets all of the glory, but the unsung hero is infrastructure," Rosenworcel said. "If you want a big and bold future for our airwaves, we need policies that support those efforts on the ground."

Specifically, Rosenworcel said that tower siting practices need to be modernized.

"They are too different in too many places and adds real costs for deployment," Rosenworcel said. "This is especially true for 5G services, which will multiply the need for micro towers or small cells so finding a way to streamlining deployment is critical."

However, a key concern for AT&T is the FCC's move to define traditional service providers under Title II of the Telecom Act. Earlier this week, the D.C. Circuit court upheld the FCC's net neutrality rules 2-1, a decision that will usher in challenges from incumbent telcos like AT&T and Verizon (NYSE: VZ) at the Supreme Court.

Cicconi said that the FCC's current net neutrality rules will have a chilling effect on new network investments.

"The totality of what's going on at the FCC and the proposals made by the chairman are very harmful to investment," Cicconi said. "I think the mentality that they can do anything they want and not have an impact on investment is just wrong."

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