CBRS hype 'much ado about not very much': Signals Research Group

Citizens Broadband Radio Service—more commonly referred to as CBRS—is generating a tremendous buzz in the wireless industry as a way for mobile operators to add capacity while enabling other companies and venues to leverage spectrum affordably.

But that excitement is actually “much ado about not very much,” according to Signals Research Group.

The FCC voted last month to seek comment on proposed changes to the 3.5 GHz rules in a move aimed at making CBRS licenses more useful and easier to obtain for rural service providers, for example, or small schools. Among other things, the FCC proposes to allow licenses to be extended from three years to ten years, and to allow geographical boundaries for the licenses to be increased.

The commission is hoping to lay the foundation for a shared-spectrum model for CBRS, giving incumbents—who are primarily military- and radar-related—priority access while allowing others to use the airwaves in regions where it is under-utilized or not used at all.

But the agency still faces serious challenges in ensuring non-incumbents get access to ample amounts of the spectrum, according to a new report from Signals.

“While (some) issues are being addressed, the FCC can’t solve how to carve up 150 MHz of spectrum between everyone that wants a piece of the pie, while also ensuring that everyone gets a sufficient amount of spectrum,” the market research firm said in a report. “The 150 MHz is already carved up into 7- MHz for PAL (Priority Access License) and 80 MHz for GAA (General Authorized Access). The pecking order for the spectrum is incumbents, followed by PAL, and then by GAA…. 40 MHz sounds like a lot of spectrum, but when it comes to 5G and eMBB, it is only somewhat interesting, in our opinion. Further, if there are multiple bidders going after the PAL licenses then even achieving 40 MHz could be challenging.”

Signals said that device compatibility will also be a significant speed bump for those looking to leverage CBRS. Manufacturers won’t invest heavily to build CBRS-compatible phones until operators deploy infrastructure “in a meaningful way,” but those operators will need handsets that support the spectrum for those network investments to pay dividends. So while CBRS should prove valuable for network operators, it may not hold as much value for those who don’t own wireless infrastructure.

“The device ecosystem will develop but it is likely the initial CBRS deployments will target the more mundane applications, like fixed wireless access and industrial IoT applications,” the firm said. “We believe infrastructure and devices will be able to span the entire range of frequencies—CBRS and C-Band—and the total amount of available spectrum, combined with the global interest in the C-Band for 5G services, will make CBRS more interesting and value to operators. Operators will just have to act now, and then wait patiently for everything to fall into place.”