“HetNet” might sound like slang for the basketball hoops at Staples Center, but it’s really about wireless broadband – and much of Southern California’s economic and technological future hinges on it. 

HetNet refers to “heterogeneous networks” – the many different ways that mobile data can be transmitted via wireless broadband facilities, from towers and other “macro” sites to small cells and other “micro” sites. Small cells and distributed antenna systems, or DAS, are now integral components in the arsenal of every wireless carrier. They’re also uniquely suited to Southern California’s terrain and population density.

This won’t come as a surprise to the SoCal’s millions of digital pioneers – many of whom use cellphones, laptops, smart watches, tablets, fitness trackers and other devices every day to drive the Silicon Beach economy. Every business person in the region needs to understand the implications of Cisco Systems Inc.’s prediction that consumer demand for mobile data will soar some 700 percent over the next five years. And that’s on top of the 700 percent it’s already skyrocketed since 2010.

What might come as a surprise is the massive technology required to support these services. While the bulk of mobile data needs are met by macro sites, smaller cells are increasingly being deployed in highly populated urban areas such as the L.A. Basin.

Passed along

Yet the end user never realizes if there has been a “handoff” from one antenna to the next. Such handoffs will become more prevalent when the Internet of Things – the panoply of wireless-enabled machines from manufacturing equipment and thermostats to driverless cars, life-saving medical monitoring and hundreds of other applications – gets unleashed, imposing greater demands on existing networks. The economic impact will be staggering: The Internet of Things is expected to add $1.7 trillion to the global economy and connect more than 50 billion “things” by 2020. The onset of 5G, which is just around the corner, will exert still-greater demands on wireless broadband infrastructure.

Consulting company iGR predicts that the total spend over the next five years on U.S. macro cells, small cells and DAS will be $212 billion. If sufficient wireless infrastructure can be built and upgraded, it will stimulate jobs and growth in every industry in California. It will also significantly strengthen the region’s emergency services in the event of a disaster.

All of which explains why PCIA, the trade association representing the wireless infrastructure industry, held its second annual HetNet Expo in Los Angeles in late October. Our forum brought together innovators from Nokia Networks, Boingo Wireless, Digital Bridge, Verizon and other companies that are building the indispensable equipment to navigate this new landscape.

One of our keynoters, Dr. Derek Peterson, chief technology officer of L.A.-based Boingo, urged us to recognize that “innovation is happening.”

“Each technology is required because the accelerated consumption that’s happening means we need all of them,” Derek told the sold-out crowd. “Let’s embrace these cooperative technologies and go to that next level.”

Derek also asked us to imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when technology will enable fans in every seat in the Staples Center to see the sweat on Kobe Bryant’s brow as if they were sitting courtside.

That HetNet-enabled day will be eagerly embraced not only by basketball fans but by every consumer, health care worker, tech entrepreneur and media company.

Jonathan Adelstein, a former Federal Communications Commission commissioner, is chief executive of PCIA – The Wireless Infrastructure Association, which hosted the HetNet Expo.