CBRS is good, but for whom?

Pending an FCC decision, carriers or smaller players could benefit from shared spectrum

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has a lot of work to do as it relates to establishing rules governing the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) band. As far as spectrum goes, these 150 megahertz have very desirable coverage and capacity qualities. But, in terms of federally-led allocation, what seems like bureaucratic machinations could make or break who can take advantage of CBRS. CBRS

The spectrum is currently occupied by fixed satellite and Department of Defense incumbents. The FCC is considering a three-tiered spectrum access system. The incumbent users would stay at the top, priority access would be given to the next level of user, who would gain access via a spectrum auction proceeding, then the bottom layer of general users would be able to access spectrum not occupied by higher-tiered users.

What is really at stake is that middle tier. If the FCC adopts rules that grant 10-year licenses based on Partial Economic Areas, this is much more attractive to operators looking at long-term investments covering long periods of time. The other option is three-year licenses that cover smaller Census tracts. In the former case, this is really only desirable to operators. In the three-year, Census-based option, any enterprise or industrial interest, including commercial real estate owners eyeing neutral host network provisioning, could enter the fray.

In a recent blog post, Mobile Experts LLC Senior Analyst Kyung Mun suggests that the FCC has to decide between big telecom and enabling new, innovative use cases. “As the regulators weigh the interests of large and small players alike, they have the hard job of creating a balance between big telecom and local companies seeking private networks. The FCC recognizes the importance of ‘seeding’ the market for future growth. Inclusive spectrum uses across as many different actors ranging from mobile, cable, and enterprises will likely foster efficient use of this valuable commodity.

We believe CBRS holds a lot of promise across many applications ranging from private LTE to mobile and fixed wireless broadband access. A wide variety of use cases, in our opinion, will emerge with the new freedom created by the shared-spectrum flexibility of CBRS.”

Mun raised the point of cable companies potentially benefitting from CBRS. To highlight that assertion, consider recent moves from Comcast. The Philadelphia-based pay TV giant has a mobile virtual network operator arrangement wherein it uses Verizon-owned spectrum to offer customers the Xfinity Mobile wireless service. Based on a recent request to the FCC, Comcast, which is seeing growth in its mobile business, wants to test out various aspect of deploying wireless services in the 3.5 GHz band.

It all comes down to the FCC, Iain Gillott of iGR wrote. “The 150 megahertz of CBRS has the potential to disrupt the mobile operator’s grip on cellular voice and data services by enabling new players – enterprises, schools and universities, hotels and hospitals – to build and operate their own private LTE networks.”

Regardless of whether new entrants to the LTE market or existing carriers embrace CBRS, the network infrastructure vendors like Ericsson, Nokia and others, will surely be happy to sell compatible small cells to whomever the FCC favors.

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