Reshape the Wireless Ecosystem with Citizens Broadband Radio Service

This article originally appeared in RCR Wireless, here.

How do you measure the success of a new technology? Do you review adoption numbers? User satisfaction? What about the ecosystem that builds around the technology including equipment manufacturers and solution providers? Does unlocking new use cases factor into the value proposition? Does solving longstanding vertical market pain points? Succeeding in any of these areas counts as a major achievement. But when it comes to Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), we’re seeing something unique: a groundbreaking innovation having an impact across virtually every metric and a broad array of market segments.

When the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) launched CBRS just a few years back, they introduced a new way to use public airwaves, based on a novel spectrum-sharing framework that lets different tiers of users access the same frequency band. It was a bold new approach to commercial wireless. And it’s already exceeding expectations.

In just three years since going live, CBRS has seen faster and more widespread deployment, by a more diverse range of users, than any other spectrum band in history. It’s spurred a dynamic ecosystem of hardware, software, and services vendors addressing a wide range of use cases. CBRS has become a model for sharing spectrum among federal and non-federal users. And it’s already changing the landscape of the wireless marketplace.

A new approach to commercial wireless

When the FCC formulated CBRS, they dubbed it the “Innovation Band.” From its inception, CBRS was intended to shake up the U.S. wireless industry and unlock new use cases and connectivity options for a diverse range of users. And its unique spectrum-sharing framework was among its most important innovations.

Historically, when the FCC has released spectrum for commercial use, they’ve auctioned exclusive licenses, and large Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) would spend billions to secure exclusive rights. This model has been the default for decades, but the FCC and the broader wireless industry hoped to address three longstanding challenges with it:

  • Clearing incumbents: Under exclusive-use auctions, incumbents like the Department of Defense (DoD) would have to completely clear the spectrum and shift to new frequencies. The process has historically taken a decade or more and cost hundreds of billions of dollars.
  • Maximizing utilization: Even after major investments in spectrum licenses have been made, in many locations, it’s common for hundreds of megahertz of exclusively licensed spectrum to go unused, resulting in wasted assets that could be put to better use by other users and different business models.
  • Spurring innovation: Competition is vital for the success of a thriving ecosystem. By increasing spectrum access options under the CBRS sharing framework, new vendors, in particular U.S.-based suppliers, have entered the market providing end-users with greater choice while strengthening the competitiveness of domestic companies in the global marketplace.

With CBRS, the FCC hoped to address all of these issues. Instead of auctioning exclusive rights, they introduced a shared spectrum framework that could support incumbents, Priority Access License (PAL) auction winners, and non-auctioned General Authorized Access (GAA) operators simultaneously. They hoped this framework would allow the DoD to continue its operations unimpeded, even as new commercial users started to take advantage of the spectrum. And they wanted to ensure that MNOs and other large operators could get priority access where they wanted it, while allowing others to access unused spectrum when available.

Unleashing innovation

CBRS represented an ambitious vision, and the Innovation Band has lived up to its name. In less than three years since going live, more than 290,000 CBRS base stations have been deployed nationwide. (Compare that to the more than four decades it’s taken wireless carriers to deploy 420,000 cell sites.)

Even more impressive, a dynamic ecosystem has rapidly grown up around CBRS. The technology now features:

  • 228 PAL auction winners (almost 10x the number of winning bidders for the last exclusive-use spectrum auction)
  • 900 different GAA operators
  • 40+ equipment vendors
  • 187 commercial CBRS base station models
  • Nearly 500 authorized end-client devices
  • More than 4,000 certified professional installers
  • Nine authorized Spectrum Access System (SAS) Administrators

The organizations using CBRS are just as diverse. PAL users include national and regional MNOs, cable operators, Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs), utilities, and a whole host of new, non-traditional spectrum users, including school districts, hospitals, factories, farms, cities, critical infrastructure, industrial IoT (IIoT) companies, and others all benefitting from access to CBRS spectrum.

Setting the bar for new approaches

There was some initial concern that spectrum-sharing might be too complicated or that different user tiers might interfere with each other. Here again, CBRS has demonstrated superior functionality. Cloud-based SAS services automate registration, spectrum assignment, and everything else needed to productively share spectrum. Customers can now request spectrum and start using it the same day. And incumbents have reported no instances of interference, even as hundreds of new commercial users have begun accessing the band.

Even more exciting is the innovation, competition, and new entrants CBRS has introduced into the U.S. wireless and commercial ecosystem, while injecting positive impacts on the broader U.S. marketplace and economy. The technology is already being used to enable private wireless networks by a diverse mix of users. Organizations in manufacturing, healthcare, retail, supply chain, agriculture, education, and many other sectors are using the CBRS spectrum to support applications that would have been technologically unfeasible, or too impractical or expensive in the past.

Looking ahead

So, how should we gauge the success of CBRS? The U.S. wireless marketplace has never been more competitive. American companies launching new products and business models can now gain direct access to spectrum to accelerate innovation, without being forced to choose from the same limited technologies, based on the same non-U.S. equipment vendors. They have more wireless and connectivity options, more control, increased security, and better pricing. And the rest of the world is taking notice, as regulators in Europe and Asia are now evaluating spectrum sharing to commercialize their own spectrum resources.

If CBRS can accomplish so much so quickly, one thing is clear: However we define success for the future of the U.S. wireless market, inclusive spectrum-sharing models are proving to be an instrumental part of the story.

Jennifer McCarthy is the VP of Legal Advocacy at Federated Wireless.

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