Last week, the FCC formally authorized CBRS for nationwide commercial deployment, opening the doors for a potentially huge new area of wireless service. I spoke with Dave Wright, President of the CBRS Alliance, and Iyad Tarazi, President and CEO Federated Wireless, for inside information about the launch and what we can expect to see in the year ahead.
Full Commercial Deployment
Following on from a successful three month period of Initial Commercial Deployment, where the system operated as expected, the FCC issued a public notice authorizing four SAS administrators for a five year term.
- Federated Wireless
Amdocs was the only other SAS vendor approved for initial commercial deployment and anticipates approval later this month.
Currently there are two ESC (Environmental Sensor Networks) deployed, one by Federated Wireless and the other shared by Google and CommScope. It is possible to operate a SAS without an ESC but service would be limited in coastal areas.
Dave Wright, President of the CBRS Alliance, (pictured right) reported that his organization goes from strength to strength. Their 160 members were recently joined by Microsoft, Dell and many other players with specific sector focus. There are around 50 infrastructure devices (Small Cells, called CBSDs in CBRS parlance) authorized by the FCC to date. There are also around 50 client devices approved, including Smartphones (Apple, Samsung, Google, LG, Motorola, OnePlus etc.), Push-to-Talk handsets, IoT devices and gateways as well as a range of fixed wireless CPE (Customer Premises Equipment). The diversity and number of approved products continues to ramp up.
Iyad Tarazi, President and CEO of Federated Wireless, (pictured left) notes that every piece of regulatory work is now in place, and the full 150MHz frequency band is available with no constraints. The system is valid not just in all 50 states (including Alaska, Hawaii) but US territories of Guam and Puerto Rico. His company has accumulated 35 customers in various stages of deployment and is already adding a
nything up to 100 sites per day. When I asked if he knew the proportion of indoor vs outdoor sites, Iyad estimated around 2/3rd outdoor vs 1/3rd indoor so far but thought it too early to make any judgement or draw long term conclusions from that.
Iyad reported the top users so far include existing mobile network operators (MNOs) adding the 3.5GHz band to their spectrum portfolio, Fixed Wireless Broadband providers (especially in suburban and rural areas), and private networks for applications such as enterprise, stadiums or for industrial use. These private networks often involve devices other than handsets, such as a video cameras, digital signage, point-of-sale, wiring replacement, PTT critical communications, robotics and logistics.
Three tier evolution
The CBRS solution comprises a hierarchy of three usage tiers sharing the 3550 to 3700MHz band, defined as Band 48 in 3GPP standards.
Incumbents, i.e. those who had been using the spectrum before, include the US Department of Defense, who use it in high power weather radar onboard their warships. During the initial deployment phase, the CBRS system responded as designed, detecting where and when these radar systems are in operation and automatically commanding CBSDs nearby to switch to other frequencies.
Other incumbents are the Part 90 Fixed Wireless Operators in the 3650 to 3700MHz part of the band. Iyad notes that the FCC have set a deadline of 17 April 2020 (or at the end of their license term if later) for them to transition into using the CBRS system, and does not believe any further extension will be granted. Technically, they could continue to operate their existing technology under the control of a CBRS SAS. Iyad has seen a lot of interest in this community to migrate to LTE, where price points are lower for mass market technology, and believes there will be a good amount of switchover.
Priority Access Licenses (PALs): After considering feedback from a consultation in November last year, the FCC will publish rules for an auction in the next month or so. The original FCC directive was to auction PALs at census tract level (around 74,000 nationwide) but after feedback that was reduced to county level (around 3,200). There will be 7 licenses per county, lasting 10 years, renewable. With such a large number of individual licenses involved, Iyad thinks there may be an interesting and diverse range of participants. Dave believes it could take a couple of months to conduct the auction, scheduled to start on 7 June 2020, then a further month to assign spectrum allocations to the winners. Dave expects the PAL tier to come into operation around October/November timeframe, by which time the industry will have had about a year of real-world GAA experience.
General Access Authorization (GAA): This is the tier that all CBSDs are using today, and currently includes access to the full 150MHz band (allocated in 10MHz chunks). When the PAL licenses are operational (i.e. CBSD devices are actively in use by licensees), then the available GAA spectrum in any particular area will be reduced. However, much of the initial GAA usage today will be by those later granted PAL licenses, so the actual capacity reduction seen may not be quite so significant.
The CBRS Alliance will release Version 3 of their specifications this month, which have passed the working draft ballot and are undergoing an IPR review. This version includes the usual refinements and clarifications of any new standard but headline with support for 5GNR.
Last Monday also saw the release of a report from NTIA, who manage Federal Spectrum across the US, investigating the possibility of extending the CBRS band to include 3450 to 3550MHz – expanding the available bandwidth from 150 to 250MHz. They believe that the existing Federal Systems would continue to need to operate in that band, but that a CBRS solution could be viable. When pressed, Dave guessed commercial availability might be around 3-4 year timeframe.
Neutral Host and Seamless Roaming
All of these initial deployments are either extensions of existing mobile networks or completely independent private networks. I have not heard of neutral hosts yet offering a single CBRS solution that can seamlessly roam onto any of the major mobile networks.
However, Iyad does point out that some neutral host providers do have agreements with carriers to interconnect. Naturally, carriers are very conscious about the quality of service delivered to their customers. The technical solution to support seamless roaming onto CBRS already exists, it requires a political and commercial decision to deliver that. Dave seems confident that once a critical mass of CBRS capable handsets has been reached, and the footprint of CBRS private networks grows, there will be a strong commercial argument to do so.
Exporting CBRS worldwide
My own view is that those of us in Europe look at this new initiative enviously, and wonder if we might benefit from a similar scheme. We have reported previous events discussing the possibility, UK regulator Ofcom has talked about the 3800 to 4200 MHz band. Germany and the Netherlands have also expressed some interest. A mass market sharing a common band would make most commercial sense, but here in Europe we have allocated the 3.5GHz band for 5G which has the spotlight at the moment.
There are many organizations involved in the CBRS success story to date, from the Wireless Innovation Forum (WIN Forum) who started researching specifications around seven years ago, the CBRS Forum launched by six founding members in 2016, the major vendors who have invested heavily in SAS, CBRS, client devices and other supporting solutions, the FCC who developed and approved the regulations and the Department of Defense who ultimately did co-operate enough to let others share the precious spectrum asset.
We look forward to reviewing the first full year of commercialization and seeing how and where those involved reap the benefits of their early and sustained investments.