What’s the best way to fuel innovation in the American wireless industry, and expand connectivity options for U.S. businesses and citizens? Leaders representing both the public and private sectors discussed this question for years. In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced their answer: Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS).
By expanding access to spectrum previously reserved for the Department of Defense (DoD), the FCC and the broader U.S. tech industry hoped to use this “Innovation Band” to kickstart a new generation of cutting-edge private wireless solutions. They wanted to do it quickly, without disrupting critical national defense systems. And by employing a novel shared licensing framework, they aimed to encourage new domestic businesses and stakeholders to get involved—ideally, chipping away at a global wireless ecosystem dominated by non-U.S. suppliers.
Less than three years since CBRS went live, the results are in. And they’re a resounding success. CBRS has seen faster, more widespread deployment, by a more diverse range of users, than any other spectrum band in history. Now, CBRS is serving as a model for how inclusive spectrum-sharing can benefit everyone—consumers, businesses, the military and public sector, and the greater U.S. economy.
Inside the Numbers
Just how quickly has CBRS taken hold in the marketplace? In less than three years, more than 290,000 base stations have been deployed nationwide. (For comparison, the commercial wireless industry has built less than 420,000 cell sites over its entire 40-year history.) Meanwhile, a vibrant ecosystem of hardware, software, and service providers has grown around CBRS, spurring a wave of new entrants into the wireless marketplace. That ecosystem already includes:
40+ equipment vendors
187 commercial CBRS Base Station Device (CBSD) models
Nearly 500 authorized client devices
More than 4,000 certified professional installers
Nine authorized Spectrum Access System (SAS) Administrators
A record number of users have already adopted CBRS spectrum, including:
- Priority Access License (PAL) users: Under CBRS’ shared licensing framework, 228 bidders won priority licenses—almost 10x the number of winning bidders in the 2022 exclusive-use auction for the 3.45 GHz band. PAL winners represented a diverse mix of new and traditional spectrum users, including national and regional Mobile Network Operators (MNOs), cable operators, Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs), and electric utilities.
- General Authorized Access (GAA) operators: Among the most exciting aspects of its inclusive spectrum-sharing model, CBRS ensures that GAA operators can access spectrum that’s not being used by incumbents or priority license-holders. (This is a huge change from the traditional exclusive-use model, where in some locations, hundreds of megahertz of licensed spectrum goes unused.) Already, nearly 900 different operators—cities, factories, school districts, hospitals, research centers, critical infrastructure companies, and more—are taking advantage of GAA spectrum.
This diverse mix of users and operators—and the fact that they can all productively share the same spectrum band—is itself a monumental achievement.
From its inception, CBRS was intended to shake up the telecommunications space and bring new innovation and competition to the U.S. wireless market. By any measure, the Innovation Band has more than lived up to its name. Customers are already using CBRS in a wide range of fixed and mobile use cases—both by MNOs to bolster wide-area coverage, and by public- and private-sector users for highly customizable private networks. Early private deployments span manufacturing, healthcare, retail, supply chain, agriculture, education, Smart Cities, and many other sectors.
Among other goals for CBRS, U.S. government and military leaders hoped to reduce the industry’s dependence on the same three non-U.S. wireless suppliers and promote a more dynamic American ecosystem. Here again, the Innovation Band is exceeding expectations. Both new and traditional vendors can now gain direct access to spectrum to launch new products and business models, without being forced to do things the same way, with the same limited choices in solutions and partners. U.S. businesses now have more wireless vendor and technology options than ever before to implement new solutions—more quickly, with better pricing, and greater control and customization.
Nowhere has this change been felt more than among WISPs seeking to bring broadband connectivity to rural regions, remote areas, and other underserved communities. The FCC first enabled the WISP market in the 2000s, but outdated technology and limited, proprietary equipment options caused the market to stagnate. Today, CBRS has breathed new life into the WISP model. Licensees can now access up to 3x the amount of spectrum in some locations, and choose from a wide range of state-of-the-art 4G/5G equipment from dozens of vendors, at competitive prices.
CBRS Performance and Simplicity
CBRS uses an innovative tiered sharing framework, where DoD incumbents and PAL licensees take priority, but unlicensed GAA operators can also access spectrum where available. Sharing is fully automated, with cloud-based SAS services handling everything in the background to prevent interference.
Despite initial concerns that spectrum-sharing might be too complicated, or that incumbents might be at risk of interference, the CBRS model has proven a resounding success. Even in its first few years post-launch, incumbent DoD operations have reported zero instances of interference—even as the number of commercial users in the band has exploded.
CBRS’ dynamic spectrum management has also proven fast, simple, and seamless for customers. Using automated SAS registration and spectrum assignment has proven as easy as using any other cloud service—as demonstrated by the nearly 300,000 transmitters already deployed. CBRS customers can request spectrum and start using it the same day. SAS administrators have also simplified back-end connectivity for equipment vendors, pre-validating interoperability and eliminating the need to customize spectrum-related features for different operators.
Extending the CBRS Model to New Frequency Bands
If CBRS was an experiment in whether different operators can productively share spectrum, the results are in. Not only is shared licensing viable, it’s an excellent option for commercializing any spectrum band—especially compared to the traditional model of clearing the band and auctioning exclusive licenses. CBRS-style sharing delivers more economic value, to more businesses and consumers, much more quickly.
Historically, clearing incumbent systems from a band to support exclusive licensing can take 10 years and hundreds of billions of dollars. With CBRS-style sharing and dynamic spectrum management, critical government and military operations can continue uninterrupted, even as thousands of new networks and services begin sharing the same spectrum. Meanwhile, U.S. businesses and consumers can start using and benefiting from the spectrum right away—instead of waiting 10+ years to clear the band.
U.S. taxpayers also avoid the massive costs of moving incumbent government operations. In the 3.1-3.45 GHz band, for example, DoD estimates that clearing the band and relocating would cost approximately $200 billion.
For all these reasons, the DoD and most of the U.S. tech industry is thrilled at what CBRS has already accomplished and excited to extend the shared spectrum model to other bands. The benefits of CBRS-style sharing frameworks are now clear: Shared licensing offers the best path to maximize our use of limited spectrum resources. U.S. businesses gain far more choice in new wireless solutions, services, and partners, far more quickly. Consumers gain more broadband access in more places, with better pricing. Incumbents can maintain critical military operations without disruption, and without the huge costs of clearing and relocating.
And for the future of U.S. wireless innovation? With a CBRS-like model, U.S. businesses no longer have to rely solely on traditional spectrum access models, working with the same exclusive partners, using technology from the same non-U.S. equipment-makers. In just a few years, CBRS has spurred more competition and new market entrants than the U.S. public wireless marketplace has seen in decades. As we look to the future, it’s now clear that a balanced, inclusive spectrum policy offers the best path to promote innovation and competition, and propel U.S. companies to the forefront of global wireless innovation.
As Vernita D. Harris, Director, Department of Defense Chief Information Officer Electromagnetic Spectrum Enterprise Policy & Programs (EMSEPP) recently wrote: “While spectrum sharing is not novel, CBRS represents a revolutionary leap in spectrum sharing, and provides valuable lessons learned for broader spectrum sharing implementation.… DoD believes the nation that masters spectrum sharing among all users will gain huge technological, economical, and strategic advantage over competitors in the commercial and national security arenas.”