Federated readies ‘Airbnb’ for secondary CBRS spectrum market

As the industry prepares for the start of the CBRS 3.5 GHz Priority Access License (PAL) auction on July 23, Federated Wireless is getting ready to play a big role in the secondary market that’s expected to develop once the auction is complete.

In what Federated’s VP of Legal Advocacy Jennifer McCarthy describes as a sort of Airbnb for spectrum, the company, as a Spectrum Access System (SAS) administrator, can help facilitate transactions for PAL licensees that want to lease their spectrum on the secondary market. It can also show prospective leasing entities what’s available in a given geography if they’re in the market for some spectrum.

In terms of speed and ease in which these kinds of transactions can be consummated, “it’s going to create a whole different dynamic for spectrum leasing that really doesn’t exist in any other frequency band,” she said. Federated can combine the marketplace with its spectrum controller that also enables access to the spectrum. “The combination of the two, we think, is going to be attractive for PAL licensees going forward.”

The CBRS auction is the largest one yet in terms of the sheer number of licenses available—over 22,000 county-sized licenses, representing the smallest geographic area that the FCC has made available, she said.

In addition, depending on who makes it through the FCC’s qualification process, this auction is on track to host the largest number of participants.

RELATED: AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Cox, Charter among CBRS bidders

The FCC received 348 applications to participate from the likes of big service providers such as Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Dish Network, Comcast, Charter Communications and Cox. Tier 2 and 3 players like U.S. Cellular are expected to participate, as well WISPs like Midco, Rise Broadband and Bluegrass Wireless. In the utility space, Chevron and San Diego Gas & Electric are among the applicants, and Corning, John Deere and Texas A&M are some examples in the enterprise arena.

Federated Wireless
Source: Federated Wireless

Federated as a SAS administrator has been up and running commercially for about eight months, starting with the unlicensed General Authorized Access (GAA) tier, where about 15,000 CBRS devices already are deployed.

The growth that it’s been tracking has not been stopped by the COVID-19 pandemic. “It really shows how much interest there is in the CBRS spectrum just looking at the GAA tier,” she said.  

With the PALs, it’s a use-it-or-share-it type of model when it comes to the spectrum. The PAL licensee will have first rights to use the spectrum they win at auction, but if it’s not using the spectrum in a particular geography, Federated can assign the unused spectrum to someone else.

That’s expected to drive the PAL license holders to actually use the spectrum they win but also to streamline the secondary market because they have the ability to lease a portion of the spectrum to someone else and generate revenue.

Federated isn’t the only SAS administrator, but it says a differentiator is its Environmental Sensing Capability (ESC) network, which has been operational for about a year, giving it time to create redundancy and resiliency. It boasts five 9s reliability.

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According to Federated CTO Kurt Schaubach, the investment in the ESC network is important because it enables the company to make full use of the CBRS spectrum that’s available.

The ESC network consists of sensors along the U.S. coastlines so that it can sense when incumbent users like the Navy are approaching those areas. The SAS looks at the entire 150 MHz of spectrum to determine what channels are in use by incumbents and relocates a PAL or GAA user to another channel only if needed.  

After the auction is complete, which is expected in the fall timeframe, Federated’s spectrum controller will have information in its database that it will use to assign spectrum for the lowest tier of use, or GAA. Per FCC specifications, 80 MHz of spectrum will routinely be available for GAA use, and sometimes as much as the full 150 MHz will be available if none of the Tier 1 or 2 users need the spectrum in a given location.