Editor’s Note—CBRS closes in on prime time

Monica Alleven Editor's Corner

It seems as though we’ve been talking about the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band forever, without a whole lot to show for it. But that may be changing in the next month or two, when it’s possible we’ll see the first commercial iterations of the band.

To be sure, it’s been a long time coming. Way back in the spring of 2015, when Tom Wheeler was the chairman of the FCC, the commission voted to adopt new spectrum sharing tools and policies for the CBRS band to make 150 MHz of spectrum available for mobile broadband and other commercial uses. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) had to agree to the whole thing, which in and of itself seemed pretty amazing at the time.

Along the way, things changed—namely, the administration. Even though they voted in the majority, the two Republican commissioners during Wheeler’s tenure weren’t happy with the 3.5 GHz CBRS rules. When the Trump administration named Ajit Pai as chairman, he designated fellow Republican Commissioner Michael O’Rielly as the point person to oversee a review of the rules.

O’Rielly strove to keep the process moving, but it took a while. Finally, last October, the commission voted 3-1 to adopt changes to the rules governing the licensed portion of the CBRS band, increasing the license areas from census tracts to counties and extending license terms to 10 years. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the lone Democrat on the commission at the time, dissented, saying the changes were reverting backwards, not forwards, and amounted to lost opportunities.

Throughout all the back-and-forth about how the rules should be structured, the CBRS industry, eager to start making some money off this newfound spectrum, forged ahead. The General Authorized Access (GAA) portion of the band was never as contentious as the Priority Access Licenses (PAL) portion, and industry stakeholders were able to get a lot done while the industry was seemingly in limbo. The entire effort required participation from a host of players, including would-be Spectrum Access System (SAS) administrators, Environmental Sensing Capability (ESC) players, the CBRS Alliance, the WInnForum and so on. 

RELATED: Next release of CBRS specs will support 5G

Flash forward to today. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) head David Redl last week provided a bit of an update on the situation, saying engineers at NTIA’s research lab, the Institute for Telecommunications Services (ITS), have completed lab testing of ESC equipment for a handful of companies looking to commercialize the 3.5 GHz band. Work on the SAS side continues, and “we are working judiciously to make sharing in this band a reality as soon as possible,” he said at a Free State Foundation conference.

RELATED: Google courts WISPs with tailored CBRS solutions

Some CBRS advocates have fretted that the government is taking too long in its testing. That’s understandable. I spoke with some folks last year who expected the GAA portion of the band to go commercial before the end of 2018. That didn’t happen, and now it looks as though initial commercial deployments might kick off in the second quarter of this year, like May or June. It all depends on how the government’s testing goes, and there are a lot of reasons not to rush it.

CBRS vs. Wi-Fi

From the early days, all kinds of use cases have been envisioned for the CBRS band, including private LTE installations at enterprises—think stadiums or race tracks, hospitals or schools. Those are exactly the types of venues that are deploying Wi-Fi, which inevitably leads to questions about how much CBRS is doing to displace or compete with Wi-Fi.

Motorola Solutions recently touted its MOTOTRBO Nitro, which uses CBRS spectrum. Motorola said it will offer better indoor coverage for voice and data, providing up to four times the range of Wi-Fi. Others with whom I’ve talked in the past, including longtime Wi-Fi advocates, have said LTE deployments in CBRS are just plain better than Wi-Fi because LTE offers mobility.

On the flip side, a smattering of experts say otherwise. Mathew Varghese, senior product manager of Wireless Services at Google, said he’s often asked whether CBRS is going to compete with Wi-Fi.

“I’m agnostic,” as to the band, Varghese said. “Both will co-exist and we think that in most areas, you’ll have both Wi-Fi and LTE as opposed to Wi-Fi or LTE.”

Arris International, which acquired Ruckus Wireless in 2017, is another company with a long history in Wi-Fi  and it's also eager to make some bucks off CBRS.

“I don’t think Wi-Fi ever gets replaced,” said Tom Cloonan, CTO of Network Solutions at Arris. At a time when everyone needs bandwidth, why wouldn’t you use both Wi-Fi and CBRS? More spectrum is always a good thing. “I think they’ll both work together,” he said in a recent interview.

FWA as early driver of CBRS

The Dell’Oro Group released the results of its 5-year CBRS forecast report, where it found that Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) will drive the lion’s share of the CBRS capex over the near-term—which is not surprising—but it also found that CBRS capex is not projected to have a significant impact on the WLAN capex, which includes Wi-Fi.

In general, the impact on Wi-Fi will be muted, according to Stefan Pongratz, senior director at Dell’Oro Group. “It’s a complement,” and “the math doesn’t add up” for CBRS to be a replacement to Wi-Fi, he told FierceWirelessTech.

That’s not to diminish the opportunities for CBRS. Far from it. The Dell’Oro Group anticipates the overall CBRS RAN market will grow at a rapid pace between 2019 and 2023, with cumulative investments surpassing $1 billion over the next five years.

And, there are a lot of players that stand to gain. Pongratz said he often finds himself needing to revise his list upwards—a list that includes more than 25 vendors with planned or announced CBRS solutions. Unlike how it was a few years ago when the small cell sector was expected to explode and it never did quite the way it was hyped, Pongratz doesn’t see the same thing going on today with CRBS.

“I would add that I think that the vendors are at this point in time, a little bit more smarter going about it than they were” a couple or few years ago, he said. “Today, the vendors are realizing that they are optimizing the likelihood of success.” A new CBRS player may not compete directly with an Ericsson or Nokia for an operator’s business, but in a rural deployment for a WISP, there might be an opportunity for upstarts, and while the list of vendors may be long, they’re focused on different parts of the opportunity, he noted.

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

The funny thing is, many times we talk about the U.S. falling behind in the 5G race—including when it comes to mid-band spectrum. But the reality is the U.S. is one of the few countries that is trying to do something different to actually change how networks are built, Pongratz noted. CBRS is an example of that.

The down side?

With all this optimism, though, there’s got to be some down side, right?

Joe Madden, founder and president of Mobile Experts, said the negatives will become more apparent as the market develops. The PAL auction is taking a long time to get going, and that’s a disappointment. It remains to be seen whether the big mobile operators will dominate the PAL licenses, or if cable operators, enterprises and others make meaningful bids. 

“My view is that, with multiple business models using the same spectrum, CBRS will be a commercial success one way or the other,” he said. “We see successful FWA cases already, and MNOs are certainly interested. The remaining uncertainty surrounds the questions of how quickly the enterprise markets can develop, and how effective the Neutral Hosts can be in terms of setting up in-building systems that work seamlessly with the outdoor mobile networks.”

A couple weeks ago, the CBRS Alliance announced that its next spec, Release 3, will support 5G deployments using shared spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band, complementing the 5G New Radio (5G NR) air interface developed by the 3GPP. While that’s not exactly surprising, it’s important for the alliance to let people know that yes, 5G is going to be supported in the 3.5 GHz CBRS band, according to Chris Stark, chairman of the CBRS Alliance. After all, mobile operators cited 5G as the big reason the 3.5 GHz rules needed to be changed from their initial iteration.

I asked Stark about how the 3.5 GHz band is seen as encumbered by some of the folks that are gunning for more mid-band spectrum for 5G. The shared nature of the band means it’s not exactly pristine 5G mid-band spectrum. He noted that at the end of the day, it’s about using spectrum for its highest and best use, and the fact of the matter is, the DoD was using this spectrum before 5G was developed as a standard.

The idea of getting military aircraft carriers to change their radar wasn’t all that appealing. “I’m not sure they would have been overly thrilled by that idea,” and it’s one of those bands that in order to make it work, “we’re going to have to share,” he said. The GAA in particular was set out to be an innovation band; today, a healthy LTE ecosystem exists and there’s an evolutionary path to 5G.

“I think what we’re doing is we’re taking a chunk of spectrum that in all honesty, the DoD is being pretty progressive about in the way that they are allowing it to be shared, and I think we put the mechanism around it to allow 4G and 5G in that spectrum,” Stark said.

It’s worth asking every now and then: Is the CBRS band the kind of innovation band that was initially envisioned back in 2015? I recently posed this question to a former FCC official who was involved in the initial rulemaking. There are a lot of moving parts and for the most part, they’re still there, and it’s an innovative band, according to this official. It’s open to a lot of use cases other than the same-old wireless carriers, although they’re certainly in there, and a lot of the puzzle pieces are starting to emerge.

Some people are still calling it a big experiment because it hasn’t been done before. It is a big deal. If the U.S. is able to pull it off without a hitch, other countries are likely to adopt something similar, at least in concept. The old ways of using spectrum aren’t going to last forever. Now we just have wait a little longer and watch the results unfold. — Monica | @FierceWireless

"Editor's Corners" are opinion columns written by a member of the FierceWireless editorial team. They are edited for balance and accuracy.