Editor’s Corner—Despite controversy over PALs, CBRS is poised for commercial takeoff

Monica Alleven Editor's Corner

At last year’s Mobile World Congress Americas (MWCA), some in the industry might have wondered if the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) band and everything it promised would come to fruition. After all, it’s an entirely new spectrum sharing model that has yet to be tried anywhere, designed to protect incumbents while freeing up spectrum for others to use. 

This year, things look quite a bit different. The CBRS Alliance last week celebrated the results of a recent interoperability event at CableLabs in Louisville, Colorado, where they had somewhere north of 55 different CBRS combinations. They ran them through test scenarios with a 98% completion rate and no failures. “We’re showing that the ecosystem is ready,” CBRS Alliance President Dave Wright said during a CBRS event Wednesday.

In fact, referencing a CableLabs blog, he noted that there was one Citizen Band Service Device (CBSD) vendor at the CableLabs event that had never talked to one of the Spectrum Access System (SAS) administrators prior to the event; they showed up with their radio, introduced it to the SAS and had it registered and passing traffic within 30 minutes.

Companies aiming to get certified as SAS administrators recently submitted information to the FCC about the number of sites they plan to turn on and other details about their operations. Indeed, Federated Wireless said (PDF) there's so much pent-up demand for CBRS spectrum that it's partnering with 15 companies, including wireless carriers, cable service providers, a major tower company and a managed service provider to deploy CBRS solutions at 15,773 sites across 47 states and the District of Columbia. 

RELATED: Federated Wireless revs up for commercial CBRS launch in Q4

As Joe Madden, principal analyst at Mobile Experts, noted at MWCA, that’s almost 16,000 small cells just waiting to go live the day the switch gets flipped—a huge number of small cells for an industry that has been waiting in the wings for what seems to be many years for takeoff. And that’s just one number from one of the proposed SAS administrators; there will be others. Mobile Experts forecasts explosive growth for CBRS small cells.

While the FCC has been mired in the debate over the Priority License Areas (PALs), the staff at the FCC and industry leaders have been going full bore on the General Authorized Access (GAA) portion of the band, which doesn’t require a lengthy auction and license process. That’s the part of the band that’s got a large part of the ecosystem fired up, and for good reason.

LTE can provide mobility, which Wi-Fi can’t do.

Wi-Fi access point vendor Ruckus Networks, an Arris company, is discovering more and more things that can be done with CBRS than it initially thought.

“That’s what’s cool,” said Oren Binder, director of LTE Product Marketing at Ruckus. “When we go to a customer—we don’t understand much about the casino business or oil and mining—but once you explain to them and say, ‘Hey, you can do this with your security cameras’ … and then they come back to us and say, ‘Hey, could I also connect my slot machines to LTE and have them mobile and not tethered to the ground and I don’t want to use Wi-Fi’" due to security concerns, "and we’re like, sure,” but it’s not something they would have anticipated. 

Verizon has said it expects devices supporting CBRS to be available before the end of this year, and it’s looking as though smartphones with CBRS are imminent. Just based on how things are shaping up, “we think the first wave of devices is probably right around the corner,” said Joel Lindholm, vice president, Openg LTE business at Ruckus. (Note: It's not supported in the latest iPhone.)

One of the big issues about CBRS is getting it widely available in smartphones, noted Gordon Mansfield, vice president of Converged Access & Device Technology at AT&T, in his presentation at the CBRS event. It will happen, but it takes time. So AT&T’s first go-to-market strategy involves using GAA CBRS to offer a fixed wireless service in rural areas the latter part of next year.

Another early use for the band is private LTE or industrial IoT. In the manufacturing space specifically, “you’ve got to have low latency. You’ve got to have security and you’ve got to have the ability to contain the data on prem”—it cannot leave the premises. “So when you take those capabilities with the CBRS bands and tie that together with edge compute, we can really have the opportunity to revolutionize manufacturing as we know it today,” Mansfield said.

AT&T last week announced it will use CBRS gear from Samsung to offer a fixed wireless service in rural areas starting in the later part of 2019. It also announced it will use SAS capabilities provided by CommScope. While all of the SAS administrators—which include Google and Federated Wireless—need to talk to one another, from AT&T’s perspective, it doesn’t make sense to have more than one SAS at this point, Mansfield told FierceWirelessTech. The Environmental Sensing Capabilities (ESC) that AT&T uses will also come from CommScope.

It’s worth noting why there is so much interest in the 3.5 GHz CBRS band to begin with. There’s a lot of things that make it unique—the sharing setup, the sensors that determine when spectrum is free and when it isn’t, the fact that U.S. Navy ships are not going to tell anyone where they’re at—which is why the sensors are needed, and so on.

But it’s also the size of the spectrum. It’s in the middle—between the low-band and the high-band millimeter wave. The low band delivers on coverage and in-building needs; the high band brings speed and capacity but isn’t as good indoors. Being in the middle means coverage is pretty good and it’s got pretty good speed.

And basically, 150 megahertz is a whole lot of spectrum.

“There’s no way you can ignore that, especially when it’s free, at the beginning at least. So that’s why we think it has a lot of potential,” said Nokia’s North American CTO Mike Murphy. Nokia has been involved in the CBRS space since the earliest days.

Plus, LTE is getting close to being maxed out. “With LTE, you can only go so far—it’s getting close to being maxed out. So an obvious place to look is at CBRS for more capacity,” he said.

In November, the FCC is expected to submit its report on CBRS to Congress, and the initial commercial deployments in the GAA portion of the band are expected in the November/December timeframe. It still needs to get into smartphones—and the FCC needs to figure out the license size and duration. But after a few years and a lot of hard work creating the ecosystem, it looks like CBRS is coming to life. – Monica | @fiercewrlsstech | @malleven33