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Chief wireless lobbyist on the global race to 5G

CTIA CEO Meredith Attwell Baker / CTIA

Mobile World Congress Americas kicks off today in San Francisco, and on the docket is plenty of talk about 5G technology and how it will power the Internet of Things, mobile entertainment and connected cars. Ahead of the show, Axios caught up with Meredith Attwell Baker, former Commerce Department official and FCC Commissioner who is now the wireless industry's chief lobbyist in Washington.

Why it matters: The wireless industry can't seem to get it's hands on enough airwaves to power networks to handle demand by smartphone-obsessed consumers. Wireless streaming and other content-rich applications are only increasing the competition for bandwidth. 5G networks take advantage of high-frequency airwaves that don't travel as far, raising the need for twice as many cell sites to power them.

Highlights from our chat:

5G networks will be 100 times faster with no lag time: "This is the network where you will see driverless cars, remote surgery and innovative education. In terms of capital spending, our members (carriers) are ready to spend $275 billion to invest in this."

Timing of 5G network rollouts: "It will start rolling out next year, but we'll see more commercial rollouts in 2020. But that depends on getting the rules right for these networks. We're talking about cell sites the size of pizza boxes rather than 200-foot-tall towers. The industry in the past decade has rolled out 150,000 towers, and we'll be looking to roll out 300,000 in the next few years. What we're looking for is changes in infrastructure so we can roll this out faster and at an affordable cost."

International threats to U.S. leadership: "It's certainly a global race to 5G. Countries have recognized that when you are first, that gives you the advantage in innovation and investment and jobs. China is conducting 100 trials this year. South Korea and Japan are rolling out quite rapidly. We did not win the race to 3G, but we did to 4G. And that's why three-quarters of app companies are based in the U.S. So it does make a difference."

How 5G can improve rural broadband coverage: "We'll see fixed 5G wireless first. That will bring a lot of broadband to rural areas that don't have it currently."

What's next in the spectrum pipeline: "There's no pipeline. We are looking for low-band, mid-band and high-band opportunities. We need to look for win-win scenarios with government spectrum. We are encouraged to see the administration has spectrum in its budget and plans."

What about unlicensed spectrum, such as white space proposals?: "When it comes to spectrum, I talk about licensed, unlicensed and shared. To meet America's growing needs we're going to need all of it."