A variety of operators are likely to bid in the CBRS auction: Special Report on CBRS

The priority access license (PAL) Auction 105 for Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum will begin on July 23. FierceWireless will be exploring the topic Monday, May 18 during its free virtual panel: “Service Providers and CBRS: Where’s the opportunity?

There’s a general expectation that the big carriers in the United States will do some competitive bidding for licenses in high-value counties in cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago. Some of these mobile operators that could use more mid-band spectrum — think Verizon —  are probably licking their chops for the opportunity to selectively augment their existing mid-band holdings.

We can’t know their plans for sure though, because the CBRS auction rules have strict prohibitions against bidders discussing their auction intentions or “colluding.”

RELATED: Google’s Preston Marshall says Tier 1s will go for CBRS spectrum

The PAL auction will offer more than 22,000 county-level licenses with 10-year terms. There’s a total of 70 MHz available for auction in the 3.55-3.65 GHz band. The winners have an obligation to use their licenses. It they don’t, the spectrum can be used by others, rather than lying dormant.

Claude Aiken, CEO of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), said, “I think one of the great things about the CBRS model is that it’s effectively a use-it or share-it model.” If an organization purchases a PAL and doesn’t use it, then that spectrum goes back into the General Authorized Access (GAA) framework and can be used by someone else. “From day one, there’s an opportunity to use that spectrum efficiently,” said Aiken. “Historically, if the license holder doesn’t use it, then that resource goes entirely unused.”

Aiken said the winners of PALs are basically paying for the right of first refusal of the spectrum.

Aside from the big mobile carriers, cable companies are also expected to participate in the bidding. Cable operators that offer Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) services — such as Comcast and Charter — will be enticed to build some of their own wireless infrastructure in dense areas and use the CBRS spectrum to offload some of their mobile traffic to their own networks. Cablecos are also looking at CBRS for fixed wireless access (FWA) opportunities.

Charter CEO Tom Rutledge said recently that Charter could use CBRS to take traffic off Verizon’s network and also to “augment” its own Wi-Fi offering. Charter has also run FWA trials.

Beyond the big boys

Smaller cable operators and wireless internet service providers (WISPs) might bid in the PAL auction, and they’re also eyeing opportunities in the GAA portion of the CBRS band.

Stephen Rayment, Ericsson VP of technology solutions, said Ericsson has done a lot of FWA deployments already with CBRS both for WISPs and also for wireline operators in places where they can’t justify rolling out fiber or coax.

Michael Scardina is director of network strategies and technologies with the cable operator Armstrong, which serves areas of Ohio and Pennsylvania, among others. He said that for operators such as Armstrong that serve rural areas, CBRS offers an opportunity for FWA networks and also for private wireless networks. “Building fiber in the wilderness does not meet a return-on-investment, but a CBRS network does,” said Scardina. 

He gave the example of gas-drilling operations in remote areas as a good use case for a private CBRS network. The operation is hard to reach with fiber, and the workers have a high demand for wireless connectivity.

Similarly, FWA would be a great approach to serve customers in rural and sparse suburban areas, giving Armstrong the chance to increase its footprint in a cost-effective way. “From Armstrong’s perspective, it’s another tool in the toolbox,” said Scardina. “We don’t currently have any fixed wireless access deployments. We’re looking for the right opportunity.”

Speculating on the likely involvement of WISPs in the PAL auction, Aiken said, “I think you’ll see a number of WISPs participate, but not as many as there would have been if the license-area sizes were smaller.” He said most WISPs serve fairly small geographic footprints. And some counties in the United States are huge. “It doesn’t make business sense for them to buy a large geographic area in terms of spectrum access. But I’ve certainly seen a lot of interest especially in using GAA.”

Power limitations

Power limitations for CBRS spectrum are a concern for service providers. Currently, the FCC has approved two classes of CBRS access points: Category A with a maximum equivalent isotropically radiated power (EIRP) of 30 dBm/10 MHz and; and Category B with a maximum EIRP of 47 dBm/10 MHz.

RELATED: AT&T floats proposal for new category of CBRS devices

AT&T has made an argument for a Category C device with a maximum allowable EIRP up to 62 dBm/10 MHz.

But AT&T’s proposal has been met with strong objection by a coalition of other companies interested in the CBRS band, including Altice USA, Frontier Communications, WISPA and NCTA. In a letter sent to the FCC in June 2019 the coalition said higher power-level devices would necessitate larger PAL protection areas to prevent interference, which would end up benefiting only the largest mobile operators.

Armstrong’s Scardina said, “Power limitations is a concern. When you look at how CBRS is being deployed, the higher the power the greater chance you’ll extend beyond your boundary, and the greater chance you’ll push that power outside your census block.” But he said it would be the responsibility of the spectrum access system (SAS) operators to manage this.

Ericsson’s Rayment said mobile network operators can work with the current power limitations by “surgically placing” CBRS small cells in dense urban areas to boost capacity. But he said power limitations are more of a challenge in rural areas.

WISPA is “a little bit wary” of increasing power limits, said Aiken. “It makes sense from a mobile operator that wants to utilize a macro cell model, but the downside is it enables one particular provider to monopolize the spectrum over a much larger area. The upside is it allows you to cover a larger area with less infrastructure investment.”

It’s yet to be seen whether power limits will eventually be increased for use in CBRS spectrum. Rayment said, “We have the U.S. Department of Defense that has to be protected by the SAS. You can’t be blasting out the same amount of power as the macro network when we’ve got to protect those incumbents.”