T-Mobile, Charter spar over CBRS, spectrum sharing models

NEW ORLEANS – Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA) Chief Technology Officer Rikin Thakker set the expectations at the outset of Wednesday’s panel on shared spectrum models.

It wasn’t a panel on Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), he said, although CBRS was a jumping-off point for the conversation. Yet as the discussion proceeded, it was clear that CBRS was on the minds of everyone on the panel and probably most of the audience. The panel was part of this week’s WIA Connect(X) conference.

Thakker noted that it was good timing, as the NTIA recently released a report that shows CBRS is working. However, CBRS opponents, led by CTIA, insist that CBRS remains an unproven experiment in spectrum sharing, with constraints like low power levels that make it impossible to provide broad coverage. It’s top of mind as the nation’s policy makers develop a national spectrum strategy and various sharing models.

Titled “The Shared Spectrum Model – Panacea, Failed Model or Somewhere in Between?,” the session included T-Mobile’s John Hunter, senior director, Government Affairs, Engineering & Technology Policy. and Colleen King, VP of Regulatory Affairs at cable company Charter Communications.

Physically, these two were seated right next to each other, but ideologically, they were at opposite ends of the table. Charter deems the CBRS band a success, while T-Mobile basically doesn’t want to see it duplicated in any way, shape or form.

cbrs panel WIA
From left, Louis Peraertz, John Hunter, Colleen King and Rikin Thakker talked about spectrum sharing models. (Monica Alleven/Fierce Wireless )

Leading off the session was Louis Peraertz, VP of Policy at WISPA, which represents fixed wireless service providers across the U.S. Interestingly, Peraertz served for many years as a wireless advisor to former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who was on the commission when the CBRS band was first created.

WISPA represents over 600 small ISPs that are using fixed wireless to serve rural or less populated areas that are hard to reach with fiber. About 70 of them also were winning bidders in the FCC’s CBRS auction in 2020.

Peraertz said the FCC was trying to address a lot of issues with CBRS when it was created, such as repurposing the spectrum, protecting the federal radar users already in the band and enabling the greatest amount of commercial usage. They came up with a system that protects federal radar users while enabling commercial usage of the spectrum when the incumbents don’t need it.

It took a while for the ecosystem to get where it is today, including the creation of Environmental Sensing Capability (ESC) networks to detect and protect Navy radar, as well as Spectrum Access System (SAS) administrators.

But Hunter argued that any type of ESC for the lower 3 GHz band would need to be on a national scale, not just along the nation’s coast lines.

There’s been a lot of focus lately on the 3.1-3.45 GHz spectrum, which is close to the CBRS 3.5 GHz band, but it’s nothing like it, Hunter said.

“The incumbents are very different” than they are in CBRS, he said.

“We can’t just say sharing for the sake of sharing,” he said. “It just doesn’t work that way,” when there are hundreds of megawatts of energy trying to share with kilowatts of energy.

While T-Mobile doesn’t want to see the CBRS structure replicated, it agrees that there’s a need for some spectrum sharing framework going forward. But sharing needs to have equitable access and full power access or there will never be full buy-in by entities like T-Mobile, according to Hunter.

Of recent past auctions, CBRS was the lowest revenue generator, he said, adding that’s because there are so many impediments associated with the band.

The auction raised less than $5 billion, but it also was designed to get non-traditional players in the mix so it wasn’t all dominated by the biggest and richest wireless carriers.

While Hunter stressed the down sides of CBRS for licensed wireless carriers, King noted that big wireless carriers are using CBRS. There were 228 winning bidders in the auction and Verizon was the largest bidder for Priority Access Licenses (PALs), which represent the licensed portion of the band. Cable also showed up big in the auction.  

Power limits  

Peraertz reviewed some of what led up to the current power limitations in CBRS – some entities want the FCC to change course and increase certain CBRS power levels – and he said if power limits are increased, the people using the General Authorized Access (GAA) unlicensed portion of the band are the ones who are going to suffer.

At one point, Peraertz noted that power levels for CBRS was one thing this group of speakers agreed on, although for different reasons. On that score, “We’re unanimous,” he quipped. “Yay.”

That sounds like a win for somebody.