Making way for new levels of American innovation

New fifth-generation “5G” network technology will equip the United States with a superior wireless platform unlocking transformative economic potential. However, 5G’s success is contingent on modernizing outdated policy frameworks that dictate infrastructure overhauls and establishing the proper balance of public-private partnerships to encourage investment and deployment.

Most people have heard by now of the coming 5G revolution. Compared to 4G, this next-generation technology will deliver near-instantaneous connection speed, significantly lower latency – meaning near-zero buffer times – and increased connectivity capacity to allow billions of devices and applications to come online and communicate simultaneously and seamlessly.

While 5G is often discussed in future tense, the reality is it’s already here. Its capabilities were displayed earlier this year at the Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where Samsung and Intel  class=”m_4430823757643656150MsoHyperlink”>showcased a 5G enabled virtual reality (VR) broadcasting experience to event goers. In addition, multiple U.S. carriers including Verizon, AT&T and Sprint have announced commercial deployments in select markets by the end of 2018, while chipmaker Qualcomm unveiled last month its new 5G millimeter-wave module that outfits smartphones with 5G compatibility.

BARCELONA, SPAIN – 2018/02/26: View of the phone company QUALCOMM technology 5G in the Mobile World Congress.
The Mobile World Congress 2018 is being hosted in Barcelona from 26 February to 1st March. (Photo by Ramon Costa/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

While this commitment from 5G commercial developers is promising, long-term success of 5G is ultimately dependent on addressing two key issues.

The first step is ensuring the right policies are established at the federal, state and municipal levels in the U.S. that will allow the buildout of needed infrastructure, namely “small cells”. This equipment is designed to fit on streetlights, lampposts and buildings. You may not even notice them as you walk by, but they are critical to adding capacity to the network and transmitting wireless activity quickly and reliably. 

In many communities across the U.S., 20th century infrastructure policies are slowing the emergence of bringing next-generation networks and technologies online. Issues including costs per small cell attachment, permitting around public rights-of-way and deadlines on application reviews are all less-than-exciting topics of conversation but act as real threats to achieving timely implementation of 5G according to recent research from Accenture and the 5G Americas organization.

Policymakers can mitigate these setbacks by taking inventory of their own policy frameworks and, where needed, streamlining and modernizing processes. For instance, current small cell permit applications can take upwards of 18 to 24 months to advance through the approval process as a result of needed buy-in from many local commissions, city councils, etc. That’s an incredible amount of time for a community to wait around and ultimately fall behind on next-generation access. As a result, policymakers are beginning to act. 

13 states, including Florida, Ohio, and Texas have already passed bills alleviating some of the local infrastructure hurdles accompanying increased broadband network deployment, including delays and pricing. Additionally, this year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has moved on multiple orders that look to remedy current 5G roadblocks including opening up commercial access to more amounts of needed high-, mid- and low-band spectrum.

The second step is identifying areas in which public and private entities can partner to drive needed capital and resources towards 5G initiatives. These types of collaborations were first made popular in Europe, where we continue to see significant advancement of infrastructure initiatives through combined public-private planning including the European Commission and European ICT industry’s 5G Infrastructure Public Private Partnership (5G PPP).

The U.S. is increasing its own public-private levels of planning. In 2015, the Obama Administration’s Department of Transportation launched its successful “Smart City Challenge” encouraging planning and funding in U.S. cities around advanced connectivity. More recently, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded New York City a $22.5 million grant through its Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) initiative to create and deploy the first of a series of wireless research hubs focused on 5G-related breakthroughs including high-bandwidth and low-latency data transmission, millimeter wave spectrum, next-generation mobile network architecture, and edge cloud computing integration.

While these efforts should be applauded, it’s important to remember they are merely initial steps. A recent study conducted by CTIA, a leading trade association for the wireless industry, found that the United States remains behind both China and South Korea in 5G development. If other countries beat the U.S. to the punch, which some anticipate is already happening, companies and sectors that require ubiquitous, fast, and seamless connection – like autonomous transportation for example – could migrate, develop, and evolve abroad casting lasting negative impact on U.S. innovation. 

The potential economic gains are also significant. A 2017 Accenture report predicts an additional $275 billion in infrastructure investments from the private sector, resulting in up to 3 million new jobs and a gross domestic product (GDP) increase of $500 billion. That’s just on the infrastructure side alone. On the global scale, we could see as much as $12 trillion in additional economic activity according to discussion at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in January.

Former President John F. Kennedy once said, “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.” When it comes to America’s technology evolution, this quote holds especially true. Our nation has led the digital revolution for decades. Now with 5G, we have the opportunity to unlock an entirely new level of innovation that will make our communities safer, more inclusive and more prosperous for all.

How backups, backups, backups protect NYC’s cellular infrastructure

The infrastructure that underpins our lives is not something we ever want to think about. Nothing good has come from suddenly needing to wonder “where does my water come from?” or “how does electricity connect into my home?” That pondering gets even more intense when we talk about cellular infrastructure, where a single dropped call or a choppy YouTube video can cause an expletive-laden tirade.

Recently, I visited Verizon’s cellular switch for the New York City metro area (disclosure: TechCrunch is owned by Oath, and Oath is part of Verizon). It’s a completely nondescript building in a nondescript suburb north of the city, so nondescript that it took Verizon’s representative about 15 minutes of circling around just to find it (frankly, the best security through obscurity I have seen in some time).

This switch, along with its sister, powers all cellular service in New York City, including three million voice or voice over LTE (VoLTE) calls and 708 million data connections a day. High-reliability and redundancy is a must for the facility, where dropping even one in 100,000 connections would create more than 7,000 angry customers a day. As Christine Williams, the senior operations manager who oversees the facility, explained, “It doesn’t matter what percentage of dropped calls you have if you are that person.”

As we walked through the server rows that processed those hundreds of millions of connections, I was surprised by just how little digital equipment was actually in the switch itself. “Software-defined networking” has taken full hold here, according to Michele White, who is Verizon’s Executive Director for Network Assurance in the U.S. northeast. As the team has replaced older equipment, the actual physical footprint has continued to downsize, even today. All of New York City’s traffic is run from a handful of feet of server racks.

The key to network assurance is two-fold. First is multiple levels of redundancy at every level of the infrastructure. Inside the switch, independent server racks can take over from other servers that fail, providing redundancy at the machine level. If the air conditioning — which is critical for machine performance — were to fail, mobile AC units can be deployed to pick up the burden.

All equipment in the building is serviced by DC power, and in the event of an external power loss, two diesel generators connected to a large fuel storage tank will take over. The facility is also equipped with battery backups that can sustain the facility for eight hours if the generators themselves don’t function appropriately.

Diesel generators can sustain power to the switch in the event of an external power outage

At a higher level, the switch and its sister share all New York City cellular traffic, but either one could handle the full load if necessary. In short, the goal of the switch’s design is to ensure that that no matter how small or large a problem it might experience, there is an instant backup ready to go to keep those cellular connections alive.

The other half of network assurance is centralization, something that I was surprised to hear in this supposed era of decentralization. Cellular sites in an urban area like New York are often placed on buildings, as anyone looking at roof lines can see from the street. Given those locations, it can be hard to provide backup generators and other failover infrastructure, and servicing them can also be challenging. With centralization, increasingly only the antenna is located at the site, with almost all other operations handled in central control offices and switches where Verizon has greater control of the environment.

Even with intense focus on redundancy, natural disasters can overwhelm even the best laid plans. The telecom company has an additional layer of redundancy with its mobile units, which are placed in a “barnyard” owing to the names of the equipment stored there. There are GOATs (generator on a truck), and COWs (cell on wheels), and BATs (bi-directional amplifier on a truck). These units get deployed to areas of the network that either are experiencing unusually strong demand (think the U.S. Open or a presidential inauguration) or where a natural disaster has stuck (like Hurricane Harvey).

A barnyard filled with animal-named mobile cell infrastructure, including COWs, COLTs, HORSEs, and others

That said, both White and Williams noted that mobile cell deployment is much rarer than people would guess. One reason is that cell sites are increasingly being installed with Remote Electrical Tilt, which allows nearby cell sites to adjust their antennas so as to provide some signal to an area formerly covered by an out-of-commission cell. That process I was told is increasingly automated, allowing the network to essentially self-heal itself in emergencies.

The other reason their deployment is rare is that network assurance already has to handle a remarkable amount of surging traffic throughout the normal ebb and flow of a dense urban city. “Rush hour in Times Square is pretty heavy,” noted Williams. Even something as heavy as a parade through Midtown Manhattan won’t typically exceed the network’s surge capacity.

One other redundancy that Verizon has been exploring is using drones to provide more adaptive coverage. The company has been testing “femto-cell” drone aircraft designed by American Aerospace Technologies that can provide one square mile of coverage for about sixteen hours. A drone capability could be particularly useful in cases like hurricanes, where roads are often littered with debris, making it hard for network engineers to deploy ground-based mobile cells.

I asked about 5G, which I have been covering more heavily this year as telecom deployments pick up. Given the current design of 5G, White and Williams didn’t expect too much change to happen at the switch level, where most of the core technology was likely to remain unchanged.

The trend that is changing things though is edge computing, which is in vogue due to the need for computing to be located closer to users to power applications like virtual reality and autonomous cars. That’s critical, because 50 milliseconds of extra latency could be the difference between an autonomous car hitting another vehicle or a new support pylon and swerving out of the way just in time.

Edge computing in many ways is decentralizing, and therefore there is a tension with the increasingly centralized nature of mobile communications infrastructure. Switches like this one are getting outfitted with edge technology, and more installations are expected in the coming years. 5G and edge are also deeply connected at the antenna level, and that will likely affect cell deployments far more than the switch infrastructure itself.

Edge, internet of things, 5G — all will increase the quantity and scale of the connections flowing through these networks. In the future, a cellular outage may not just inconvenience that YouTube user, but could also prevent an automobile from successfully navigating to a hospital during a natural disaster. It takes backups, backups, and backups to prevent us from ever having to ask, “where does that signal come from?”

Verizon names Los Angeles as the second of four cities to receive 5G rollout before 2019

My boss’ boss’ boss was on CNBC this morning touting Verizon‘s new 5G services and naming Los Angeles as the second city in America to be treated to a commercial rollout of the new networking technology.

“I think we’re a lot closer than people think,” says Verizon chief executive Lowell McAdam of the nation’s move to the higher-speed 5G networks. “We’re locking in on four this year,” McAdam said of the cities that will receive 5G tech from Verizon.

McAdam also named Los Angeles as the second of four cities that will receive 5G rollout from Verizon. “We bought 36 million miles of fiber so we can have big pipes feeding the cells. We will have hundreds of megahertz of bandwidth to deliver the whole suite of services of 5G,” McAdam said.

“We’ll have 1,000 cell sites up and operating on the global standard,” McAdam said on the cable network.

McAdam also name-checked Boston’s mayor when listing the municipal leaders who’ve been most receptive to working with the technology company on bringing new networking technology to consumers.

Verizon first announced its plans in early 2018 to begin bringing 5G to the masses. It had initially named Sacramento, Calif. as the first market to receive the technology.

McAdam hinted at a regimented implementation that would see 5G home networking services make their way to consumers first for fixed wireless applications before mobile wireless wends its way to consumers in the first quarter of 2019.

In February, AT&T said that Atlanta, Dallas and Waco, Tex. would be the first of 12 cities to receive 5G technology, while Sprint is bringing its 5G services to Kansas City, Phoenix and New York City (the millennium capital of the world).

Verizon stealthily launched a startup offering $40-per-month unlimited data, messaging and minutes

Earlier this year, Verizon quietly launched a new startup called Visible, offering unlimited data, minutes, and messaging services for the low, low price of $40.

To subscribe for the service, users simply download the Visible app (currently available only on iOS) and register. Right now, subscriptions are invitation only and would-be subscribers have to get an invitation from someone who’s already a current Visible member.

Once registration is complete, Visible will send a sim card the next day, and, once installed, a user can access Verizon’s 4G LTE network to stream videos, send texts, and make calls as much as their heart desires.

Visible says there’s no throttling at the end of the month and subscribers can pay using internet-based payment services like PayPal and Venmo (which is owned by PayPal).

The service is only available on unlocked devices — and right now, pretty much only to iPhone users.

“This is something that’s been the seed of an idea for a year or so,” says Minjae Ormes, head of marketing at Visible. “There’s a core group of people from the strategy side. There’s a core group of five or ten people who came up with the idea.”

The company wouldn’t say how much Verizon gave to the business to get it off the ground, but the leadership team is comprised mostly of former employees, like Miguel Quiroga the company’s chief executive.

“The way I would think about it.. we are a phone service in the platform that enables everything that you do. The way we launched and the app messaging piece of it. You do everything else on your phone and a lot of time if you ask people your phone is your life,” said Ormes. The thinking was, “let’s give you a phone that you can activate right from your phone and get ready to go and see how it resonates.”

It’s an interesting move from our corporate overlord (Verizon owns Oath, which owns TechCrunch), which is already the top dog in wireless services, with some 150 million subscribers compared with AT&T’s 141.6 million and a soon-to-be-combined Sprint and T-Mobile subscriber base of 126.2 million.

For Verizon, the new company is likely about holding off attrition. The company shed 24,000 postpaid phone connections in the last quarter, according to The Wall Street Journal, which put some pressure on its customer base (but not really all that much).

Mobile telecommunications remain at the core of Verizon’s business plans for the future, even as other carriers like AT&T look to dive deeper into content (while Go90 has been a flop, Verizon hasn’t given up on content plans entirely). The acquisition of Oath added about $1.2 billion in brand revenue (?) to Verizon for the last quarter, but it’s not anywhere near the kind of media juggernaut that AT&T would get through the TimeWarner acquisition.

Verizon seems to be looking to its other mobile services, through connected devices, industrial equipment, autonomous vehicles, and the development of its 5G network for future growth.

Every wireless carrier is pushing hard to develop 5G technologies, which should see nationwide rollout by the end of this year. Verizon recently completed its 11 city trial-run and is banking on expansion of the network’s capabilities to drive new services.

As the Motely Fool noted, all of this comes as Verizon adds new networking capabilities for industrial and commercial applications through its Verizon Connect division — formed in part from the $2.4 billion acquisition of Fleetmatics, that Verizon bought in 2016 along with Telogis, Sensity Systems, and LQD Wifi to beef up its mobile device connectivity services.

Meanwhile, upstart entrants to challenge big wireless carriers are coming from all quarters. In 2015, Google launched its own wireless service, Project Fi, to compete with traditional carriers and Business Insider just covered another would-be wireless warrior, Wing .

Founded by the team that created the media site Elite Daily, Wing uses Sprint cell-phone towers to deliver its service.

David Arabov and co-founder Jonathan Francis didn’t take long after taking a $26 million payout for their previous business before getting right back into the startup fray. Unlike Visible, Wing isn’t a one-size-fits-all plan and it’s a much more traditional MVNO. The company has a range of plans starting at $17 for a flip-phone and increasing to an unlimited plan at $27 per month, according to the company’s website.

As carriers continue to face complaints over service fees, locked in contracts, and terrible options, new options are bound to emerge. In this instance, it looks like Verizon is trying to make itself into one of those carriers.

Qualcomm’s war may be over, but the casualties are just starting to be calculated

The epic battle between Qualcomm and Broadcom seems to have reached its armistice, with President Trump using the power of CFIUS to block the transaction this past week, ending what would have been the largest tech M&A transaction of all time.

It may be all quiet on the semiconductor front, but Qualcomm and Broadcom will now need to find a path forward to win the peace and secure access to the coming 5G wireless market. Qualcomm faces a daunting number of challenges, including a potential takeover battle waged by the spurned son of its founder. Broadcom will have to find a new path to use acquisitions to continue its growth.

As with any war though, the damage from this conflict isn’t exclusive to the two enemy combatants. The future of corporate governance and shareholder autonomy is now being reevaluated in light of the actions used by Qualcomm in its defense against Broadcom’s hostile takeover. In addition, America’s openness to foreign investment is increasingly under scrutiny.

Qualcomm picks up the pieces

Hostile takeovers are always going to be damaging affairs, no matter the outcome. The most important mandate for any board of directors — and particularly for the boards of technology companies — is to identify long-term threats and opportunities facing a company, and guide the executive team toward the best possible outcome for shareholders. Hostile takeovers are firefighting affairs — the discussions of the board are jolted from roadmaps, strategy, and vision to the minute-by-minute tactics of defending the company from marauding invaders.

Qualcomm should be directing its attention to strategy, but it faces additional wars on nearly every front. It’s fighting shareholders for its future, fighting Apple and Huawei over its revenues, fighting China over its acquisition of NXP, and now potentially fighting its founder’s son from a private takeover attempt.

Many of Qualcomm’s shareholders see the company’s performance as disappointing. While its stock has fluctuated over the past six years, today’s share price is essentially flat from where it stood in January of 2012. Compare that to Broadcom, which in the same timeframe has seen an increase of about 740%, and the PHLX Semiconductor Sector index, a basket index of the industry, which has seen its value increase by about 280%.

Unsurprisingly, shareholders were enticed by the opportunity to suddenly realize a 35% premium on their shares with Broadcom’s $82-a-share offer. Unlike Qualcomm’s board, shareholders were very interested in accepting Broadcom’s offer. In fact, we now know that Qualcomm’s board knew that it has lost the battle against Broadcom with its own shareholders during the acquisition process. As Bloomberg reported this week:

The votes started to come in on Friday, March 2. By Sunday it was clear that Qualcomm’s defense had failed.

Four of the six directors Broadcom had nominated were polling so far ahead of their Qualcomm peers that the race was effectively over, according to data viewed by Bloomberg. The remaining two were winning by less substantial margins. Making it worse, Mollenkopf and Jacobs, the architects of Qualcomm’s standalone plan, had received some of the fewest votes.

Inside the Qualcomm camp, the mood was bleak; assuming the trend continued, the board would lose control of the company at the shareholder meeting.

Broadcom’s message was one of quiet confidence. The company knew it had won, one person close to the discussions said. At that point, the person said, it was just a question of by how many votes, and who was going to leave the board.

Broadcom was winning the battle with shareholders, so Qualcomm’s board shifted to a terrain far more favorable to it: Washington bureaucrats. From the same Bloomberg report, “Federal lobbying disclosures for 2017 showing that Qualcomm spent $8.3 million, or roughly 100 times the $85,000 Broadcom spent…” These weren’t regulators; these were friends.

In late January, Qualcomm’s board submitted a preliminary, voluntary, and confidential notice to CFIUS asking for a review of Broadcom’s potential board coup. When Broadcom attempted to redomicile to the United States to avoid CFIUS purview (as it would no longer be a foreign company but a domestic one after it redomiciled), the government’s anger was palpable and sealed the company’s fate. The board’s original outreach to CFIUS precipitated the sequence of events that led to Trump’s block this past week.

Qualcomm’s board won the war, but it is still facing a rebellion from its own bosses. The board will be up for election unopposed this week at the company’s delayed shareholders meeting. Perhaps taking a page from tomorrow’s Russian presidential election, some shareholders are withholding their votes from the board slate to show their displeasure with the entire saga. From the Wall Street journal, “Institutional Shareholder Services Inc., an influential proxy-advisory firm, … in a note to investors late Wednesday, stood by its original recommendation that shareholders vote for four Broadcom nominees for Qualcomm’s 11-person board, even though the votes won’t count.”

That shareholder meeting will no doubt be eventful. While the board and the company’s execs will argue that they have a strategy moving forward, they confront two other ongoing firefighting challenges and one new one that could be another round of bruising internecine warfare.

Qualcomm is still in the midst of its $44 billion NXP acquisition, which continues to wait on Chinese regulatory approval. The timeline for that approval is still unclear, but even when Qualcomm does receive it, the company will still have to close the deal and actually implement the transaction. That will take significant time and energy.

Even more complicated is the continuing fight with Apple and Huawei over Qualcomm’s IP licensing revenue. Licensing revenue is crucial for Qualcomm, and the litigation around the fight will force the board to continue monitoring the day-to-day legal tactics of the company rather than focus on a longer-term vision of how to work with the largest smartphone producer in the world to generate profits.

On top of those two challenges, another takeover attempt could potentially exhaust the board further. Yesterday, Qualcomm’s board voted to remove board member Paul Jacobs, who is the son of Qualcomm’s founder and the company’s former chief executive from 2005 to 2014. He had been demoted from executive chairman to director just last week. As the New York Times noted, “The split, which means no member of the Jacobs family will be involved at the top echelons of Qualcomm for the first time in 33 years, was not friendly.”

According to reports, Jacobs is attempting to raise more than $100 billion to buy the company, potentially leveraging SoftBank’s Vision Fund in the process. SoftBank, of course, is a Japanese company, and the Vision Fund has significant capital from foreign countries including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Even more ironically, Qualcomm is an investor in the Vision Fund.

Jacobs is following in the footsteps of Michael Dell who bought the eponymous tech company back in 2013 in a take-private transaction worth $24 billion. Can Jacobs even raise the required amount of capital, four times more than Dell? Will Qualcomm be forced to run back to the Trump administration in order to avoid a “foreign” takeover of the firm yet again, this time by the son of the company’s founder?

My guess — fairly weakly held — is that the answers are yes and no. Jacobs will find the money, and the board won’t fight a distinguished former executive — even if Jacobs was running seriously behind in shareholder approval in the Broadcom fight. We will learn more in the coming weeks, but expect more strategic actions here (maybe from Intel) as well.

Broadcom regroups

Despite its very public failure, Broadcom is in a much stronger position coming out of this battle. It beat analyst estimates this week for its Q1 earnings, and has seen impressive growth in its wireless communications segment, which were up 88% year-over-year. It also managed to lower expenses, which helped drive an increase in gross margin to 64.8% (aren’t fabless and patents awesome?)

Broadcom continues to deliver strong results, but the big question post-Qualcomm is really what’s next? Qualcomm was the single most important chip company that might have been available for purchase (Intel is out of Broadcom’s league). While it plans to continue to redomicile to the U.S., which should allow it to get back into the acquisition game in America, Broadcom may struggle in the coming years to find the kinds of accretive acquisitions that can keep its growth on the trajectory it has been on over the past few years.

Shareholder power wanes?

The biggest questions coming out of the Qualcomm / Broadcom spat is not related to the companies themselves, but the entire intellectual edifice of shareholder rights and the framework used by American companies to conduct corporate governance.

Qualcomm’s board of directors took extraordinary steps to block the Broadcom acquisition. They unilaterally went to Washington to get an injunction not on a deal — which had never been consummated between the two companies — but to block Broadcom from replacing its board of directors in a standard shareholder vote. This is a very important distinction: Qualcomm’s board saw the direction shareholders wanted to go, and essentially decided to just ignore the election process entirely.

From Dealpolitik columnist Ronald Barusch:

This change threatens over three decades of a carefully balanced governance system. Since the Delaware Supreme Court approved the use of the poison-pill takeover defense in 1985, the courts have basically blessed the following tradeoff: On the one hand, corporate directors can fight tooth and nail to stop a deal and the courts will give only limited scrutiny to defensive tactics.

However, the board is strictly limited in any moves to interfere with shareholders’ ability to replace directors and force a company to change course that way. In the vernacular of a leading Delaware case, a “just say no” defense doesn’t mean “just say never.” A bidder with enough patience who can convince a target’s shareholders to change directors has a path at least toward cooperation on resolving regulatory impediments to a deal.

This is a unique case as Barusch notes, but at what point can boards use every method at their disposal to prevent their own shareholders — the people they have a fiduciary duty to represent — from taking charge of the company? This past week presents one of the most complex examples to date, and it wouldn’t surprise me if a shareholder decides to attempt a legal attack on Qualcomm.

The other side of the potential waning of power for shareholders is CFIUS itself. The Trump administration ended a potential deal for a company that shareholders were widely in favor of. Where do the rights of shareholders to realize a return on their equity end and the right of America as a nation to control national security technology start?

We are on new terrain, and there are no clear answers here. In many ways, it depends on what happens over the next few years of the Trump administration. If there are more blocks like what we saw this week, we could see a radical change in the corporate calculus that would have a long-term negative effect on the value of some American companies.

Hostile takeovers may be incredible drama for writers like yours truly, but they have enormous consequences for companies and the employees who work at them. Qualcomm is going to have to shore up its support with a whole host of stakeholders in the coming months (while dealing with a potential take-private fight), while Broadcom needs to find its next strategy for further growth. All of us are going to have to deal with new uncertainty around the power of shareholders to shape the destiny of their companies. The war is over, but the aftermath and its consequences have just begun.