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23 September 2019

Industries, cablecos and ISPs eye CBRS as commercial deployments begin

The USA’s CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Services) band in 3.5 GHz is discussed as a template for spectrum sharing and multi-tiered licensing schemes around the world, to the extent that it is easy to forget that nothing is yet running commercially in these frequencies. But the CBRS community is edging closer to the real world at last, with final FCC approval for service launches announced last week.

That will enable commercial operations to start this month in the general access (GAA) or unlicensed portion of the spectrum, though licensed usage, via the Priority Access Licensing (PAL) tier, will not start until after FCC auctions next year.

According to Federated Wireless – the most prominent of the five companies which have licenses to administer spectrum access systems (SAS) for CBRS – it has over 20 customers which will turn on services across 36 states, now the FCC has given the go-ahead.

Iyad Tarazi, CEO of Federated – which announced Series C funding of $51m earlier this month – said in a statement: “Customers from all areas of business across the nation will begin to reap the benefits of the higher throughput, improved availability and low barrier-to-entry for high performance CBRS services made available through shared spectrum in the 3.5 GHz range … CBRS will be a huge boon to innovation and help to accelerate new business models.”

The other SAS administrators which can now start commercial operations are Amdocs, CommScope, Google and Sony, though they have been less forthcoming than Federated about their detailed plans to support the introduction of the new CBRS services, branded ‘OnGo’ by the CBRS Alliance.

The CBRS schema sets out three tiers of priority in terms of access to the 150 MHz tranche of 3.5 GHz spectrum. Federal incumbents, mainly US Navy radar operations, take first priority of course, but their operations are mainly confined to coastal areas. The companies which secure PAL licenses will have the next level of priority, though some spectrum has been set aside specifically for GAA usage, enabling unlicensed users to work across the whole 150 MHz. Policing these priorities, and allocating free channels, is handled by the SAS administrators, using a variety of tools such as geolocation databases.

“Bringing OnGo to market required close industry and government collaboration. There’s been an unprecedented amount of coordination and joint development to implement the FCC’s framework, prepare the industry for imminent deployments and certify components and devices,” said Dave Wright, president of the Alliance, which runs a certification program for devices supporting CBRS, in conjunction with various test labs and the US MNOs’ organization, CTIA.

Google, LG, Motorola Mobility, Motorola Solutions and Samsung have already launched commercial handsets authorized to operate in the CBRS band, and on September 10, the new Apple iPhone 11 was launched with CBRS band support, a significant boost for the community.

AT&T and Verizon were among the operators adding statements of congratulation to the official release, but another signatory, cable operator Charter, may find CBRS more impactful for its future strategy – and its ability to disrupt the established telcos. According to several sources who spoke to LightReading, Charter is preparing to build LTE networks in CBRS spectrum in locations where it has a large number of users of its Spectrum Mobile MVNO service, to add capacity and reduce MVNO fees. The company is planning to use eSIM to push customers’ traffic from Verizon’s LTE network onto Charter’s base stations. It also has plans to use CBRS to fill gaps in its cable network in rural areas.

The major cablecos have been launching mobile services to add consumer quad play and enterprise services to their portfolios. So far, they have been relying on MVNO agreements augmented by their extensive WiFi hotspots and homespots, but several are interested in gaining greater control by investing in their own core networks and spectrum. Using CBRS GAA now, and bidding for the PAL licenses next year, would help them do this affordably.

So interesting is CBRS to the cable community that its R&D arm, CableLabs, has several 5G-oriented projects related to the band. And Comcast, Charter and Altice are all giving CBRS a central role in extending their own control of their cellular connectivity. They all seem to be working towards deployment of home or enterprise small cells in shared spectrum, often with their own virtualized core and and edge compute node, to support a sub-net entirely managed and monetized by the cable operator. The only reliance on the MNO’s network, and therefore the only requirement to pay MVNO fees, comes when users move off those localized residential or industrial systems onto the wide area network.

Charter’s CEO Tom Rutledge said, on an earnings call in May, that his firm was looking at various spectrum options and dual-SIM devices to extend its own, rather than the MVNO-based, mobile coverage. Dual-SIM technology will allow the company to support its own network and an MVNO system on the same device to enable the sub-net approach. Charter has also talked before about the value of embedded SIM (eSIM) technology for IoT services. It is also running trials in CBRS as well as further expanding its WiFi capabilities and footprint to be able to increase the traffic it handles in free spectrum.

The biggest cablecos are not the only ones looking to CBRS to extend their business model into mobile broadband, quad play and private enterprise networks. The USA’s fifth cableco, Mediacom Communications, which has 2.7m customers across the Midwest and Southeast, has been running tests in the CBRS band in Chester, New York, with equipment from Samsung.

And mid-tier cableco, Midco, plans to deploy fixed wireless access (FWA) services in CBRS spectrum to extend its wireline coverage area and has carried out tests with the most commercially advanced of the SAS administrators, Federated Wireless, and equipment maker Telrad. Midco CTO Jonathan Pederson said it could use the combination of technologies to extend its current coverage area by about 30 miles in each direction, to reach about 100,000 new POPs, which he hoped would lead to adding about 20,000 to its base of 400,000 cable customers, in areas of South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas and Wisconsin. The firm will also target IoT applications, especially in agriculture, in its rural territories. It plans to use rural infrastructure such as water towers to site wireless backhaul antennas, operating in 11 GHz and reaching about 23 miles to support the 3.5 GHz base stations.

Fixed wireless access (FWA), especially in rural areas, has been the traditional application of midband spectrum in the USA, mainly in the 3.65 GHz band which sits above the federal holdings. That will be included in the CBRS scheme and existing wireless ISPs can resubmit for their licenses. Many expect FWA, despite all the excitement about IoT and mobility, to be the mainstay application of CBRS, and Claude Aiken, CEO of the Wireless ISPs’ Association (WISPA), said of the FCC approval: “We can’t create new spectrum, but we can invent new ways to use it more efficiently. Today, after years of hard work and development, initial commercial deployment (ICD) of CBRS shared spectrum is a reality …  equipment makers, services and Internet providers will spring into action, helping more Americans – including those in unserved and underserved areas – obtain high speed services through robust dynamic sharing of the 3.5 GHz band.”

The excitement about the GAA element of CBRS has been high because it sets out an approach which has more safeguards, in terms of quality of service, than a fully unlicensed band like 2.4 GHz; but which moves away from exclusive, long-term and very expensive licenses that cover whole countries or regions, and are affordable only by a few organizations. Advocates believe that a combination of shared spectrum, and shorter-term licenses covering smaller areas, will enable a wider variety of service providers and enterprises to deploy cellular connectivity, and so help industries to achieve the networks they need, even when these do not make good business sense for national MNOs to deploy.

The interest in this innovative approach often obscures the fact that the GAA tier is nothing to do with 5G as yet. Standards for 5G in unlicensed spectrum will not be finalized until the next 3GPP release and, if LTE-Unlicensed is anything to go by, will face political and commercial hurdles before they are implemented in large-scale commercial equipment and networks. The CBRS Alliance is working on coexistence specifications for 5G in 3.5 GHz. But while winners of PAL licenses next year are likely to deploy 5G, GAA supporters must stick with 4G for now.

The competition for PAL licenses may be fierce, since this is one of the only ways – along with wresting C-band spectrum from satellite operators – that US MNOs have of harnessing the 3.5 GHz band in which the rest of the world is rolling out 5G. However, other industries, keen to have their own spectrum and ensure that 5G networks are built to suit their requirements, may also enter the bidding, although the license duration and geographical coverage are larger than many industrial players had wanted. GE, for example, called for very small areas which could be used to cover a factory complex (rather like the UK’s new system – see separate item); and others wanted license duration of only one year. In the end, the FCC struck a middle course between those demands, and the MNOs’ wish to have large, long-term licenses similar to those in exclusive bands.

As well as industry verticals and their service providers, the cloud providers are also interested in CBRS, especially Amazon AWS, which has been running tests in the spectrum close to the California headquarters of its R&D arm Lab126, as well as its group HQ near Seattle and in Arlington, Virginia. Judging by demonstrations which AWS ran at its Re:Invent developer conference last year, the tests may be part of a plan to harness shared spectrum to offer cloud-native, private mobile networks to developers, private or telecom operators, and enterprises, for “quick deployment of Industrial IoT applications, such as real time surveillance, smart meters and worker safety monitoring”, as AWS put it.  The private network service is being developed with localised packet core provider Athonet, CommScope’s Ruckus and Federated Wireless.


Some of the initial commercial deployments announced for CBRS last week:

  • CommScope said Athonet will build a 200-square kilometer 3.5 GHz LTE network for a large wind and solar farm operator, which will use the network for video surveillance, industrial control and monitoring, thermal imaging, asset tracking and remote control of inspection drones.
  • Federated said JMA Wireless has built a 3.5 GHz network using devices from Cradlepoint to cover 600 acres and 33,000 parking spaces near the American Dream Mall in New Jersey. The network will remote updating of 30 digital signs in order to direct parking for events at the nearby Metlife Stadium.
  • Federated said Boingo built a private wireless CBRS network with equipment from CommScope-owned Ruckus at Dallas Love Field Airport to support staff communications; and potentially as a neutral host platform for traveller services.
  • Federated said the City of Chicago is working with Crown Castle, Cradlepoint, Vapor IO and others to build a private LTE network with edge computing functions for applications such as license plate recognition and drone surveillance.
  • CommScope said regional telco Windstream will expand fixed wireless services using CBRS.
  • Federated said it’s working with Wave Wireless, Ruckus and InfoMark to build a private LTE network for some of WeWork’s offices for services including secure business communications, automated entry and energy management.