AT&T taking wait-and-see approach to CBRS as rules still in limbo

SAN FRANCISCO—AT&T is pretty much taking a wait-and-see approach to the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) band—not for lack of interest but for clear and final guidelines from the FCC.

With CBRS, there are a lot of moving parts, said Gordon Mansfield, vice president of RAN and Device Design at AT&T, on the sidelines of Mobile World Congress Americas. “We’re firm supporters of the structure of the shared model, the three-tiered structure,” he told FierceWirelessTech. “As soon as the rules are defined, we’ll be pretty quick to develop and communicate our strategy.”

The FCC last year voted on CBRS rules, but CTIA and T-Mobile petitioned the FCC this year to modify them, asking that the geographic areas be larger and the license terms be longer. Another camp, including companies as diverse as Google, Microsoft, Rise Broadband and American Tower, in June (PDF) had urged the commission to stick to the rules it adopted in 2015 and affirmed in 2016 and not make changes that could undermine their significant investments.

Proponents of rule changes have said that minor changes to the Priority Access License (PAL) part of the rules should not have any adverse impact on the deployment of the General Authorized Access (GAA) part of the CBRS band. The GAA piece can proceed as it would under the previously approved rules.

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FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly told members of the CBRS Alliance this past summer that procedurally, the hope is that the commission will vote on a notice of proposed rulemaking of “proposed enhancements” to CBRS in the fall and have an order by the New Year or soon thereafter. Meanwhile, members of the CBRS ecosystem are forging ahead.

Gordon Mansfield
AT&T's Gordon Mansfield

“We see the ecosystem evolving now,” Mansfield said, with Spectrum Access System (SAS) administrators going through the certification process at the FCC and the Environmental Sensing Capabilities (ESC) being developed that manage it so that when the incumbents, which are mostly federal users like the Navy, are in the area, no one else is on that spectrum. Progress is happening there. Then the next step is the broader ecosystem."

“The infrastructure is the easy part, actually,” he said. A lot of infrastructure companies are talking about product availability with CBRS, but for the full benefit of that, "you’ve got to have the full ecosystem—the SAS, the ESC, the infrastructure, but most importantly, the devices supporting it with enough penetration, and that’s the key. It’s not the time at which you first introduce it to the device; you have to have enough penetration in the device ecosystem that allows the full promise of a shared use spectrum arrangement to really fulfill its promise.”  

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Last month, Verizon, Ericsson, Qualcomm Technologies and Federated Wireless announced what they described as the first ever use of CBRS band 48 spectrum in an LTE Advanced carrier aggregation demonstration. The demo was done in an Ericsson lab in Plano, Texas.

Asked how or when AT&T might introduce CBRS products, Mansfield said he can’t speculate on when the FCC might have the rules done. “We watch it very closely,” he said, but “I’ve got to see the rules” before communicating what AT&T might do.