As 5G networks start to move towards the cloud, there will be expanded opportunities for many enterprises, smaller operators and other service providers to access network resources in an on-demand way. Rather than building their own networks or signing rigid MVNO deals, these companies can acquire a slice of someone else’s network, or can buy connectivity capacity and related functions on a pay-as-you-go basis, just like buying cloud capacity on-demand from AWS.
The rise of flexible and dynamic network-as-a-service (NaaS) models will see increased sharing of assets that were once entirely operator-owned, such as antennas and network functions, while the sliceable 5G core will allow the service providers to assemble exactly the capabilities they need for a particular application.
One element of the RAN that will also have to become more dynamic and democratic, if this NaaS vision is to become reality, is spectrum. Already, of course, we have seen some breakdown of the system in which virtually all cellular spectrum was owned by mobile operators, while the only affordable options for other players were to use unlicensed technology like WiFi, or sign MVNO agreements with spectrum owners. In the 5G era, there are shared spectrum schemes like the USA’s CBRS general authorized access (GAA), and some moves towards a spectrum-on-demand platform, as advocated a decade ago by Google.
In reality, most of the baby steps towards dynamic access to spectrum on an on-demand basis have been taken in the WiFi world, where unlicensed spectrum and network resources have been included in marketplace-based systems like BandwidthX. But the creation of automated Spectrum Access Systems (SAS) for shared cellular bands like the TV white spaces and CBRS have resulted in a key enabler for a new approach to 4G/5G airwaves in future.
Federated Wireless, which is one of the authorized SAS operators for CBRS, has announced its new Spectrum Exchange product, which it says can be the basis of a standardized approach to spectrum licence leasing, that in turn could be a step towards spectrum-on-demand on a broader scale than CBRS. US operator Frontier Communications has agreed to use the exchange to purchase 3.5 GHz CBRS spectrum leases – an alternative to acquiring such licences outright.
More broadly, Federated is hoping this system will be the first step to a flexible and automated platform that can manage short and long term ‘leases’ – eventually including usage of spectrum for very short periods of time – across multiple bands. The model could see both the ownership and usage of spectrum shifting dynamically between different operators and service providers as demand rises and falls.
Federated CEO Iyad Tarazi said Spectrum Exchange will initially allow holders of CBRS priority access licences (PALs) to offer unused licences in a marketplace, whether to organizations seeking temporary capacity, such as a sports venue, or an operator wanting longer term extra airwaves. He said 20-30 mobile operators have “expressed strong interest”, and that Federated will work first with operators, and then expand the efforts to enterprises.
The company is working with the FCC to obtain the official approval for the product, which is expected by the end of the year. It believes a marketplace platform will “carve out holes” where spectrum might otherwise be unused and wasted.