With shared spectrum, area of license coverage can make or break CBRS business case for CRE
As commercial real estate owners and investors look to provide tenants with cellular connectivity as a utility, the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum band holds a huge amount of promise.
Say you own an airport or a hospital; deploying a private LTE network in the 3.5 GHz band would allow you to control mission critical connectivity for everything from baggage tracking systems and mobile medical devices to the men and women that operate those assets. Sounds great, right?
Lots of companies seem to think so based on filings with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which is considering rules that will govern the shared use of the CBRS band. In terms of access, the FCC is looking at a three-tiered spectrum access system. Incumbent users—fixed satellite communications companies and the Department of Defense, for instance—sit at the top of the pyramid. Below incumbent users are priority access license (PAL) users who would gain access to available frequencies through an auction process. The bottom general authorized access (GAA) license is accessible by what the FCC calls “licensed-by-rule,” which means if an incumbent or PAL license holder isn’t using it, it’s available for use by a GAA license holder.
Back to the example of an airport or a hospital. For CBRS to work here, the property owner would need a PAL license to leverage CBRS. Right now the FCC is considering whether to assign this type of license to either a U.S. Census tract or a Partial Economic Area, the latter of which is much larger than the former. In a February filing with the FCC, which is taking input on its decision, representatives from GE make the case for going with a Census tract assignment. GE sees CBRS as potentially a big boost to its industrial Internet of Things customers.
“As long as the commission retains census-tract licensing across all areas…IIoT operations at 3.5 GHz should provide secure, reliable and cost-effective connectivity, functionality and bandwidth on a localized basis. In contrast, licensing CBRS on a Partial Economic Area…basis would exponentially raise the cost of PALs and convert licensed CBRS spectrum into a commercial mobile band like most other, controlled by the major carriers.”
To put that another way, carriers need more bandwidth, the 3.5 GHz band comes with great coverage and capacity benefits, and network operators have repeatedly displayed their willingness to spend billions for spectrum licenses. So, the bigger the area a license covers, the more likely that no one but a carrier will bid on it increases.
Another issue at stake is the length of time a PAL would cover—three years or 10 years. As with their support of using Partial Economic Areas, carriers also want the longer-term licensure.
According to comments filed with the FCC by AT&T, a 10-year “license term will enable PAL licensees to conduct necessary testing and develop networks that meet consumers’ expectations. Licensees will benefit from greater certainty that their investments in the 3.5 GHz band can be leveraged to their fullest potential.” On the size of the license area, AT&T says going with Partial Economic Areas “has numerous benefits from an auction administration perspective…Utilizing census tracts would require the commission to potentially auction over 500,000 PALs, resulting in a complex and burdensome process.”
The FCC hasn’t made any decisions yet, and interested parties can still make their opinions known. But, if the carriers get their way, it remains to be seen which, if any, real estate owners would be willing to go head-to-head with the AT&Ts and Verizons of the world in a spectrum auction.
To find out more about CBRS consider reading this article: What is 3.5 CBRS and why should I care?