CTIA study stirs up frenzy over CBRS

A study commissioned by CTIA that slams the Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) band and basically calls it a failure is getting a lot of heat from the CBRS community.

The study by Recon Analytics flags factors like low power levels and small license sizes as reasons for low CBRS adoption and limited use cases.

“The inescapable conclusion is that CBRS spectrum would be more widely utilized, at greater levels of efficiency, and deliver more value to federal incumbents, commercial users and the American consumer had it been made available for excusive, licensed use,” the study states.

Those who back the CBRS industry say the crux lies in this part: “Given the highly effective, proven track record of exclusive-use licensed spectrum, need for more data on CBRS’ performance, and the fact that all available data points to underperforming expectations, policymakers should refrain from using CBRS sharing as a model for bands in the future,” states the study for CTIA.

Michael Calabrese, director, Wireless Future Program at Open Technology Institute at New America, said a lot of people are calling it a CTIA “smear campaign” against CBRS because CTIA doesn’t want the 3.1-3.45 GHz band to end up looking more like CBRS than traditional spectrum bands that are licensed.

CBRS is home to a three-pronged way of sharing the band between incumbents, which is mainly Navy radar users, and licensed and unlicensed users. The licensed users, like Verizon and Dish Network, bought Priority Access Licenses (PALs) in 2020; the General Authorized Access (GAA) portion of the CBRS band is for unlicensed users.

Calabrese said CTIA’s report is a way to influence legislative action now underway in terms of how the lower 3 GHz (3100-3450 MHz) gets managed and how much gets cleared for licensed use.

Asked if all the hullabaloo around CBRS is to bolster the argument for licensed spectrum in the 3.1-3.45 GHz band, CTIA provided the following statement:

“CBRS proponents want to prematurely export the CBRS sharing structure to additional bands, and this report demonstrates that CBRS is underutilized today. Given the amount of CBRS spectrum still available for future experimentation across the nation, policymakers should refrain from using it as a model for future bands,” said CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker.

In September, Recon Analytics founder and lead analyst Roger Entner set off a storm of debate over CBRS when he tweeted that he couldn’t reconcile the oft-touted “CBRS success” story with reality.

“A review of today’s CBRS marketplace shows that CBRS does not live up to the hype as the foundation of innovation and should not be a model for future spectrum policy,” Entner said in a press release announcing the new study on Monday. “Real-world studies show low utilization, low market demand, and a dearth of innovative use cases.”

Not so fast, says CBRS camp

Several groups released statements shortly after that CTIA press release went out. Among them: the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition, which said schools, libraries and other anchor institutions have been increasing their use of unlicensed CBRS spectrum over the past couple years.

“SHLB urges policymakers to continue to adopt a balanced approach in favor of both licensed and unlicensed use that can bring high-speed, low-cost broadband to unserved and underserved consumers," said John Windhausen, executive director of the SHLB Coalition, in a statement.

On Tuesday, 25 public interest and civil society groups, schools and libraries sent a letter to Congress calling for it to renew the FCC’s spectrum auction authority in a way that doesn’t prioritize exclusive licensed spectrum over unlicensed or shared spectrum models.

Living up to 'Innovation Band'?

Federated Wireless operates as a Spectrum Access System (SAS) administrator for CBRS and launched its business in sync with the creation of the CBRS band. In many respects, it owes its commercial success to the CBRS band. It currently serves more than 425 customers, according to Kurt Schaubach, CTO at Federated Wireless.  

“Clearly, I think CBRS is living up to its name as an Innovation Band,” Schaubach told Fierce on Tuesday. In less than three years, there are 40+ equipment vendors, 187 device models, 500 authorized client devices – “the proof points go on and on.” 

He noted that cable operators also are using CBRS spectrum for wireless offload, and multiple verticals use it for private wireless network deployments.

“The promise of the band was to bring new market entrants, to spur innovation, to enhance the size of the equipment ecosystem,” Schaubach said. “All these goals are truly being achieved.”

It's not even three years into the commercial operation of the band and maybe about 18 months since PALs were issued. “The fact that we have 280,000 CBSDs deployed is, I think, an incredible number. The pace of growth continues to increase,” he said.

The growth in the past year has been faster than the almost two years prior, he said. “Things are accelerating,” with various market segments moving to full deployments. All indications from customers are the scope, scale and quantity will pick up considerably in 2023.  

Schaubach said it’s the only spectrum band where non-traditional OEMs, system integrators and enterprises themselves can gain access to spectrum and use it for a private network. 

“Frankly, when the industry in the U.S. talks about 5G private wireless ... the two things go hand in hand,” he said. “They really are closely linked.”

Richard Bernhardt, senior director, Spectrum and Industry at the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), likens it to real estate. The 3.1-3.45 GHz is a valuable piece of mid-band property; it’s stable and propagates well. Of course the mobile industry would like to see it allocated for licensed use.

But WISPs see the value of shared spectrum, which is working in the CBRS band, he said, noting the number of CBRS devices deployed and some 3,700 certified professional installers trained to put the radios in and register them with a SAS. He asks: If it’s such a failure, why is the user population increasing?

“We’re not losing users,” he said. “We’re adding users.”