It is no secret that we are more dependent on wireless connectivity than ever before, and that this dependency is growing far beyond just mobile phones and laptops. This increasingly wireless world is dependent upon the radio frequency spectrum, and there is a, seemingly endless, desire for more spectrum to support the demand.
Traditionally, spectrum has been allocated in one of two ways; 1) for exclusive use via the auction of very expensive license rights, or 2) for unlicensed use available to all, but on a best-effort, uncoordinated basis. The licensed approach underpins today’s mobile services, while the unlicensed approach has given us technologies such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. While wireless technology and services have evolved dramatically over the last 30 years, this bipolar choice between licensed and unlicensed spectrum has remained unchanged – until now.
An Introduction to Shared Spectrum
Using some impressive foresight, in April 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established the Citizen Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) framework to open the 3.5 GHz spectrum band for new commercial services on a shared basis with existing incumbent users. In the new CBRS model, 150 MHz of underutilized spectrum is efficiently shared by taking advantage of advanced allocation and coordination techniques implemented as cloud services – a revolutionary, dynamic option that will become as important as the traditional approaches, not unlike the impact ride sharing has had to transportation.
Importantly, new commercial services are being introduced in two separate allocation modes: a portion of the band will be available for exclusive (Priority Access) use, while all spectrum, not being used by incumbents of priority access licensees, will be available for permissive (General Authorized) use. This model enables carriers, managed service providers, fixed operators, enterprises and industrial players to access this shared spectrum while protecting incumbent users, such as the military and fixed satellite providers. The spectrum is carefully managed to ensure there are no interruptions to either the incumbents’ existing services or the exclusive uses at the priority tier. For operators, businesses, and consumers, this means a new alternative that delivers reliable and predictable connectivity at a lower cost than traditional approaches.
The Birth of the CBRS Alliance
In 2016, six companies with common interests, in the adoption of CBRS technology, came together to form the CBRS Alliance. The focus of the CBRS Alliance is to support the commercialization of LTE and 5G solutions in the 3.5 GHz band of spectrum in all aspects – from technology development, to market awareness, to product certification that ensures overall interoperability. Since its inception, the CBRS Alliance has amassed more than 120 wireless industry players, representing a broad and diverse ecosystem, ranging from chipset, hardware and software manufacturers to mobile and cable operators, solution integrators, and end-user organizations, all focused on the opportunities enabled by CBRS.
Massive Economic Value
In late 2017, former FCC Commissioner and renowned economist Harold Furtchgott-Roth conducted the first economic analysis of the value presented by the 3.5 GHz CBRS band. He found that not only did the band add real value to the U.S. economy, but in fact, the estimated market value of the priority access spectrum licenses ranged up to $15.6 billion. In addition, the report found that the estimated net present value of consumer surplus is between $80 and $260 billion. For context, at the time of this report, the combined valuation of Uber and AirBnB was around $80 billion.
The full report from Furtchgott-Roth provides a thorough analysis of the economic value of the technology and highlights the fact that delaying the availability of CBRS could cost the U.S. economy between $10-20 billion per year.
Commercial Deployment Outlook
Leading organizations across the country are already exploring how to take advantage of OnGo1. The city of San Francisco recently announced its plans to use the 3.5 GHz band to power its smart city implementations, and the PGA Touris conducting extensive field trials of an OnGo private LTE network to improve coverage and security at its tournaments. Even the NFL is considering an OnGo network at each of its stadiums to augment existing wireless networks. But when can we expect to see these deployments become a reality?
In July 2018, the FCC took the next step toward the first commercial deployments in the 3.5 GHz band by announcingan “initial commercial deployment” phase that would precede the full launch of OnGo services. In October 2018, Ruckus Networks, Nokia, Ericsson, and Sercomm successfully achieved authorization from the FCC to operate their OnGosmall cells in the 3.5 GHz CBRS band. These devices are also the first to receive OnGoCertification, indicating the products meet the standards that the CBRS Alliance has developed to ensure interoperability within the OnGo ecosystem. Since then, a number of additional Alliance member companies have received FCC authorization and OnGo certification on their infrastructure products.
In November 2018, the FCC issued the first end user device authorization for a CBRS client to Sierra Wireless for its CBRS IoT module. In the intervening months, several other devices have been authorized, representing the range of CBRS use cases. At this time, there are a variety of smartphones, push-to-talk handsets, IoT gateways, customer premise equipment, laptops and vehicular clients for CBRS, and many additional devices will be authorized through the remainder of 2019.
Collaboration is Key
The story of CBRS and OnGo is one of close industry and government collaboration. There has been an unprecedented amount of coordination and joint development to implement the FCC’s framework, prepare the industry for imminent deployments and certify the various components. The organizations that have been involved in these efforts include the FCC, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the Institute for Telecommunication Sciences (ITS), the Department of Defense (DoD), the Wireless Innovation Forum (WIF), and the 120+ members of the CBRS Alliance. A recent FCC reportto Congress highlighted this collaboration and detailed how these organizations have come together to make the commercialization of the 3.5 GHz CBRS band a reality.
An entire industry has been hard at work laying the groundwork for the transition to shared spectrum. Over the last three-plus years, CBRS has been transformed from a high-level government framework to a soundly engineered, well-tested service that is supporting the next generation of wireless connectivity.
With final certifications underway and commercial service just around the corner, the industry is abuzz with the possibilities presented by OnGo for sectors ranging from mobile, cable and fixed wireless, to healthcare, retail, hospitality, manufacturing, mining, and transportation. The industry will be keeping a close eye on additional uses for CBRS’ innovative spectrum sharing model as they emerge, ultimately validating the flexibility of this new approach to wireless connectivity.
1. In May 2018, the CBRS Alliance announced the launch of the OnGoTMbrand and certification program which will drive interoperability between vendors and amongst the various components that comprise an overall CBRS solution. The launch of OnGo is reminiscent of the birth of the term “Wi-Fi” in the late 1990s as a market-friendly brand that encompasses a technology and its solutions. The CBRS Alliance’s certification program, supported by CTIA – a trade association representing the U.S. wireless communications industry, along with a number of global test labs, has established a set of standards for performance and interoperability of devices and services operating within the CBRS band.
Dave Wright played an instrumental role in the formation of the CBRS Alliance, collaborating with other founding members to create a robust multi-stakeholder organization focused on the optimization of LTE services in the CBRS band. He served as the Alliance’s first Secretary from its launch in August 2016 and was elected as the President of the Alliance in February 2018.