The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) today hailed the success of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band and pointed to a new report that shows it’s working.

The report is in stark contrast to last year’s controversial CTIA report that slammed CBRS and suggested the spectrum would have been better used if it had been made available for exclusive, licensed use.

The approach of CBRS – described as the “Innovation Band” in its early iteration – allows for dynamic spectrum sharing between the Department of Defense (DoD) and commercial spectrum users. The DoD gets protected, prioritized use of the spectrum, but when it’s not using the airwaves, companies and the public can gain access through a tiered licensing arrangement, the NTIA blog points out.

The sharing is made possible through an automated sense-and-avoid dynamic process, which the NTIA describes as a ground-breaking framework made possible by rules established by the FCC in 2015, technologies standardized by industry and certification tests executed at NTIA’s research and engineering lab, the Institute for Telecommunications Sciences (ITS).

Since the ITS has a role in making it all work, it’s not surprising that its report shows it’s working. But as the blog rightly points out, there were a lot of questions about whether it would work. What the blog doesn’t mention is there are a lot of wireless industry stakeholders that would prefer it doesn’t work too well because that sets a precedent, and they want spectrum allocated on a licensed basis, not one that requires them to share.

NTIA said the ITS worked with industry to obtain access to proprietary data and to perform an “independent, objective analysis” of CBRS device deployment.

Researchers reviewed aggregated data between April 1, 2021, and January 1, 2023. They found the number of CBRS devices nationwide grew by 121% over the 21-month analysis period, “an indication that access to the spectrum is growing,” the NTIA said. “This research is in keeping with the Biden Administration's focus on evidence-based policy making.”

Here are some key findings identified in the ITS report:

  • CBRS deployments grew at a steady rate with a mean quarterly increase of 12.0%.
  • On January 1, 2023, there were 128,351 active CBSDs in Dynamic Protection Area-impacted counties with a total population of 232,348,897 residents.
  • The number of CBSDs with Priority Access License (PAL) grants grew consistently, with a mean increase of 17% per quarter, but General Authorized Access (GAA) CBSDs dominated deployments. On January 1, 2023, four out of five active CBSDs were GAA-only, 85% of the active grants were GAA, and two-thirds of active CBSDs with a PAL grant had at least one active GAA grant.
  • More than 70% of all active CBSDs were deployed in rural census blocks on January 1, 2023.

NTIA said it would like feedback on the report from stakeholders, including observations and conclusions, how future reports may be improved and on ways to improve the CBRS spectrum sharing framework. It’s accepting comments until May 31, 2023.

CTIA was quick to give its feedback.* The organization sent the following statement to Fierce today: “CBRS remains an unproven experiment in spectrum sharing, with attributes such as low power levels, which make it impossible to provide broad coverage. To deliver secure and reliable wireless to all Americans, and secure America’s economic and innovation leadership, we need a pipeline of exclusive-use, full power licensed spectrum.”

Sharing in the air

Carriers represented by CTIA that want more licensed spectrum may not like it, but sharing is on the minds of spectrum policymakers, and the DoD itself has acknowledged that sharing is a way forward. The DoD also has been identified as the one to blame for the holdup of the FCC’s auction authority reinstatement because there’s a study underway on the DoD’s use of the 3.1-3.45 GHz block, with a report due out in September.

In a report for investors today, New Street Research (NSR) analyst Blair Levin said the biggest spectrum battlefield, in NSR’s view, is the battle over spectrum currently used by the DoD, which remains the most powerful institutional force in Washington, D.C.

“The DoD has been playing hardball, leading the behind the scenes effort in Congress that resulted in the lapse in auction authority, while also suggesting that allowing mobile broadband on that band would likely cost $120 billion in radar relocation expenses, more in terms of retraining, and R&D, and would take many years to implement,” Levin wrote. “The DoD is also ramping up its own public relations efforts with messages on national security, such as this op-ed arguing that Congress may sell out national security for the sake of 5G.”

While the wireless industry has a long history of causing others, such as broadcasters and other federal agencies, to reduce their spectrum footprints, the DoD is a much tougher political rival, and it’s a battle that will be fought in the Administration, the FCC and in Congress, he noted.

The NSR report also noted that CBRS is making headway with private networks. A recent WSJ article on the wireless industry looking to industrial private wireless as a potential big opportunity for 5G networks missed the point that many of the projects in the U.S .are happening on CBRS, Levin said, pointing out that Dow & Kyndryl deployed a private CBRS network in the largest chemical plant in the western hemisphere.

* Story updated May 1 with new statement from CTIA.