Ahead of the inaugural Connected America conference, we caught up with The Wall Steet Journal’s SVP of Tech, Media & Telco Business Development, Sara Mascall, to discuss some of the biggest challenges facing the telecoms industry in the US 

5G was a major focus at Mobile World Congress this year. Do you think the technology is living up to its potential in the US?

5G was a huge focus at MWC Barcelona recently, and I was privy to a few discussions about it at our Journal House. This was the first time The Wall Street Journal has hosted a Journal House at MWC, which is an experiential place, offering business leaders a space and time to connect with peers and catch unscripted interviews with the decision makers at the forefront of tech’s biggest transformations.

Joanna Stern, our Senior Personal Technology Columnist at The Wall Street Journal hosted a discussion, What’s the Deal with 5G?, with Cristiano Amon, President and CEO of Qualcomm. Joanna has recently written a column, It’s Not Just You: 5G Is a Big Letdown, which was at the heart of the conversation. Cristiano responded that 5G is still in its early stages, and we could not live up to the needs of consumers without 5G, and that 5G “really is going to be the last mile to connectivity.”

Raakhee Mirchandani, Anchor & Contributing Editor for The Trust at WSJ | Barron’s Group also hosted a conversation covering Connectivity and Digital Equity with Caroline Chan, VP and GM, 5G Infrastructure Division, Network Platform Group Intel and Gretchen Tinnerman, Vice President, US Network & Edge Practice Leader, Kyndryl (the newsroom was not involved in the production of this session). In this discussion, they touched upon ways they’re helping bridge the digital divide by Intel providing connectivity to underprivileged communities in Sacramento, and Kyndryl is working with businesses to provide connectivity to help with health and safety.

Obviously there are lots of discussions surrounding 5G and there is still a lot of untapped potential in this space; for instance, in rural areas and developing regions across the world. And with this next wave of 5G I think we can expect to see new use cases (as Joanna mentions in her article, for drones, self-driving cars, and other devices), and entry into new markets. In fact, at MWC, GSMA Intelligence announced a new report that 5G connections are poised to double over the next two years, with 5G infrastructure deployments in more than 30 countries this year.

The IIJA is at the centre of many industry discussions right now, especially when it comes to fibre. How effective do you think this bill is going to be in helping better connect Americans? Is the funding going to the right places?

The IIJA is putting in place a $65 billion investment into broadband of which $48.2 billion will be administered by NTIA’s newly established Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth. So while this is certainly a step in the right direction to help the digital divide in places with, for instance, underserved areas and areas with higher poverty, but like any bill I think it will come down to the rules, timeframes, and deployment of funds along with the execution.

Do you think the industry is doing enough to reach and support rural communities? 

Many of the major challenges in rural areas, such as inadequate infrastructure to support connectivity, complicated terrain, more limited knowledge, and higher costs, have made investment in rural areas a non-viable business case for telecommunications operators.

But now, as mentioned previously, part of the theory of the IIJA is to help underserved communities connect – it should make it more accessible for all, which includes fiber network expansion into rural communities. Last year the USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the department is investing $401 million to provide access to high-speed internet for 31,000 rural residents and businesses in 11 states, as part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to investing in rural infrastructure. So, with more investment and funding in this space it looks to be improving and more of a priority.

We’re in the middle of a global economic crisis, putting the strain on customers and telcos alike. How do you see this impacting the telecoms sector over the coming year? 

The Wall Street Journal recently reported The Companies Conducting Layoffs in 2023: Here’s the List of which tech and media is highly represented, with Ericsson planning to lay off about 8% of its workforce, while it cuts costs as orders for its 5G gear have slowed in the U.S. and other markets.

In order to be competitive, tech and telco industries need to embrace digital transformation and invest in initiatives such as 5G and fiber rollouts but with the uncertainty of the economy these could face setbacks.

I foresee the telecommunications industry continuing to be impacted and challenged by the market reset, including lay offs and labor shortages.

You’re joining us to moderate the opening keynote discussion at the first ever Connected America conference next month. What are you most looking forward to at the event?

It’s been great to attend events recently and have that real life connection that had been missing for a couple of years during the pandemic, so I’m looking forward to meeting and connecting with people at the event, especially with Chris Sambar from AT&T, Prayson Pete from Adtran, and Elad Nafshi of Comcast for the session I’ll be moderating.

As we just mentioned in the last question, it’s an exceptionally challenging time for this industry and I’m eager to learn and hear directly how this is impacting organizations, the shifts we’re seeing, and the trends we expect to see in the industry.

Join the industry in discussion on all of the key issues at our Connected America conference, taking place live next week in Dallas, Texas! 

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