Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint join AT&T in eyeing LTE deployments in 3.5 GHz CBRS band

BARCELONA—All four of the nation’s Tier 1 wireless network operators are now members of the CBRS Alliance, an association that is working to define standards that would allow wireless carriers, enterprises, venue owners and others to deploy LTE networks in the newly freed 3.5 GHz band. Indeed, the momentum behind the technology is such that the CBRS Alliance is now predicting that commercial LTE deployments in 3.5 GHz will happen as early as next year.

Paul Challoner, VP of network product solutions at CBRS Alliance member Ericsson, said the group expects the FCC to begin to certify devices for the band by the middle of this year, paving the way for commercial deployments of the technology by 2018. He said the group expects a “significant” number of players—from wireless carriers to cable operators to stadium and hotel owners—to deploy LTE services in the CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Services) band.

“Spectrum is king,” Challoner said, explaining that the FCC’s move to create a shared spectrum framework in 150 MHz of spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band will allow a wide range of players to deploy services in both unlicensed and licensed scenarios.

Related: Google, Nokia and others forge alliance for 3.5 GHz CBRS

Specifically, Challoner said that the CBRS Alliance expects to see tests of LTE networks running in the 3.5 GHz band sometime in the second half of this year, trials that would leverage the Spectrum Access System (SAS) databases being built by the likes of Google and Federated Wireless. Those databases are designed to support license holders in the 3.5 GHz band (Challoner expects CBRS spectrum auctions to start in 2018) alongside unlicensed actions in the band.

Challoner declined to specify which CBRS Alliance members would test LTE networks in 3.5 GHz this year, but the alliance’s membership now stretches from cable operators like Charter Communications and Comcast to wireless operators like AT&T and Verizon to software and infrastructure companies like Google and Samsung to silicon providers like Qualcomm (indeed, Qualcomm has announced the 3.5 GHz band will be supported in its Snapdragon X20 chipset). The CBRS Alliance counts around 40 total members.

CBRS Alliance members hope that the FCC’s shared spectrum licensing model for the band will encourage a range of players to deploy LTE capabilities alongside Wi-Fi deployments as a way to improve in-building coverage. Challoner argued that hotel and other venue owners could deploy LTE via the CBRS band at a fraction of the cost of installing a DAS network in the same location—which is the current preferred method of in-building deployments for cellular networks.

To be clear, the inclusion of Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint to the CBRS Alliance’s roster (AT&T joined the group late last year) doesn’t necessarily mean they will deploy LTE in 3.5 GHz. However, it does signal their interest in the technology.

The addition of all of the nation’s top wireless carriers to the CBRS Alliance is the latest in a series of actions the group has taken to push its technology forward. Just last month, Google’s Access team announced two major milestones: The first end-to-end CBRS demonstration with 3.5 GHz mobile devices and a new Trusted Tester Citizens Broadband Service Device (CBSD) Program, which will help hardware vendors test their equipment with Google’s SAS.

And Nokia said it is partnering with Federated Wireless to create an LTE solution based on the.5 GHz spectrum, while Ericsson has successfully tested its Radio System Architecture with Federated Wireless’ SAS product.