Editor’s Corner—CBRS action revving up, but is it still the Innovation Band?

Monica Alleven Editor's Corner

There’s a rash of activity in the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band as players get their systems closer to commercial deployment. Just today, Verizon announced that leading companies and vendors from across the wireless industry are coming together at Verizon’s facility in Irving, Texas, to accelerate the use of LTE over CBRS spectrum. Corning, Ericsson, Federated Wireless, Google, Nokia and Qualcomm Technologies are all collaborating on end-to-end system testing.

For the past several days, a slew of companies have been submitting applications to the FCC for further tests and pilots in the 3.5 GHz space. CableLabs, American Tower, Nokia, Federated Wireless, Ruckus Network and ZTE all want to conduct CBRS demos or trials, and there doesn’t appear to be any end in sight.

RELATED: AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile score big win with FCC's proposed CBRS rules

Suffice it to say that the companies that want to participate in the CBRS market, whether they be big wireless operators like Verizon or access point providers like Ruckus, are going full steam ahead, and most want to get things certified and moving in the General Authorized Access (GAA)/unauctioned portion of the band before the end of this year. The more heated debates revolve around the Priority Access License (PAL) part of the band, and that’s pretty much dominated the headlines of late.

RELATED: CTIA applauds FCC move on 3.5 GHz band; WISPA calls it a step backward for rural broadband

There were some grumblings at the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) event last week about the 3.5 GHz CBRS space not living up to earlier expectations. CCA members have had a difference of opinion: T-Mobile is a CCA member and it’s been pushing hard for larger licensed areas, while smaller carriers prefer the way the rules were originally written, with licenses based on census tracts. The group has been working hard to reach a consensus that everyone can live with.

RELATED: Rural broadband providers keep pressing for smaller CBRS licensed areas

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) in particular has been fighting hard to keep the census tracts in the picture, and it’s easy to see why they don’t want the 3.5 GHz band to be turned into a band that favors just the rich and powerful carriers. They’ve seen that happen too many times before, where the rules seem to end up favoring the biggest carriers.

It’s worth noting that Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who was awarded the CCA’s Hall of Fame Award last week for her work on behalf of the industry, continues to support the rules as they were approved in 2015 and is sticking to the census tract-sized licenses, according to Louis Peraertz, senior legal adviser to Commissioner Clyburn for wireless, public safety and international issues.

While some claim that auctioning more than 70,000 census tracts is too difficult technically and administratively, the FCC’s auction division, which has held more than 80 auctions, approved that scenario, so it apparently thought it could be done. In addition, Paul Milgrom, a renowned auction expert who has advised the FCC, concluded that auctions for tens of thousands of licenses in the 3.5 GHz band is feasible, Peraertz noted during a panel on spectrum policies last week.

I remember when the commission voted (unanimously) in 2015 to create the CBRS band. The FCC at that time referred to it as this new “innovation band” that would invite all kinds of new entrants and rely on modern technologies like spectrum sensing and cloud computing to make it all work.

We don’t know what the rules are ultimately going to look like; the FCC is still considering them and hoping that the industry comes up with a compromise on the license sizes. Hopefully, the industry will find a compromise that doesn’t shoot the small guys in the foot.

But with all the drama around the PALs, it’s easy to forget the value of the GAA portion.

RELATED: Arris/Ruckus lays out CBRS opportunity: $1B by 2022

I asked Dave Wright, director of Regulatory Affairs and Network Standards at Ruckus (now an Arris company), if the promise of innovation is still forthcoming in the CBRS band. He noted that many enterprises will be fine operating in the GAA tier. However, organizations with mission-critical services such as healthcare and the big industrial players will need the protections of the PAL tier.

“GAA will always be there. That’s a game changer in and of itself,” he said.

“There were a lot of high concepts coming out of the band when it was first proposed” back in 2014 or 2013, agreed Mark Gibson, director of business development at Comsearch, which is part of CommScope, one of the three companies vying for first-wave Spectrum Access System certification. “We’ll see whether all those concepts see the light of day.”

Based on what he’s seeing in the WinnForum and CBRS Alliance, however, “we’re working together all to kind of achieve some broad sense of use cases that really service everybody,” he said. “There won’t be any compartmentalization of use cases that would be mutually exclusive. I think everybody should be able to do private networks wherever they want to, and I think that’s what the commission is struggling with in terms of the license areas.”

Ultimately, he added, the CBRS band will serve the purpose it set out to be as the innovation band “and probably then some.”

It’s disappointing that it has taken this long and that the whole thing went through the ringer a second time—you can blame or thank the election for that depending on your point of view—but the technologies and techniques still make it an innovative band. With sensor-tracking equipment being installed along the coastlines of the U.S. and perhaps unprecedented coordination between the Department of Defense, NTIA, FCC and an untold number of companies, the CBRS band is still worth celebrating from a technology perspective. We'll have to wait and see if it's an innovative band from a policy perspective. — Monica | @fiercewrlsstech | @malleven33

Editor's Note: Article updated April 5.