Verizon is expected to aggressively bid in the Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) 3.5 GHz Priority Access License (PAL) auction that starts July 23. Until then, it’s more or less free to use as much unlicensed 3.5 GHz CBRS as it can muster.
Thanks to the way the CBRS band was designed, the General Authorized Access (GAA) portion of the band is available now. Wireless carriers, cable service providers, tower companies and enterprises are among those using it, including for industrial IoT applications. Hobbyists have captured some of their sightings of Verizon’s 3.5 GHz gear in various markets.
Data from RootMetrics suggests Verizon is deploying in the GAA portion of the 3.5 GHz band at a faster clip than earlier in the year. Before COVID, RootMetrics found Verizon using CBRS in 10 of the 55 markets in which it tested.
Post-Memorial Day, it has found 17 markets where it’s using CBRS out of 33 tested. “I feel like the pace of CBRS deployment is growing,” said Suzanth Subramaniyan, director of Mobile Networks at RootMetrics.
“Whether it’s a new technology or finding more spectrum, it makes sense for any carrier, Verizon included, to look for ways to maximize the capacity of its network and deliver the best network performance for consumers,” Subramaniyan told Fierce.
It’s worth noting that handsets that support Band 48 mean they can be used in the 3.5 GHz CBRS band in the U.S., and those include the Apple iPhone SE, iPhone 11, Samsung Note 10+ and a growing list from other manufacturers.
Verizon, whose mid-band spectrum needs for 5G have been well chronicled, can’t comment on the CBRS auction due to the FCC’s quiet period and declined to comment on its overall 3.5 GHz strategy for this article. However, Verizon’s SVP of Technology Strategy, Architecture and Planning Adam Koeppe last year noted the capacity benefits that the band provides. Until the shared model emerged for 3.5 GHz, it was reserved for federal users.
“By using LTE Advanced technology and carrier aggregation, Verizon will be able to use this shared spectrum to add capacity to its network. Verizon customers will benefit from more capacity, higher peak speeds and faster throughput when accessing the network,” he said during a celebratory CBRS OnGo press conference last fall.
‘It’s free spectrum’
According to Roger Entner, founder of Recon Analytics, Verizon’s policy for some time now has been to add CBRS to every cell site that its engineers touch, to the point where approval is needed if CBRS isn’t added. Reasons to leave it off could be the enclosure is too small, it poses a fire hazard or a landlord doesn’t grant permission.
Basically, Verizon’s strategy, according to Entner, is to use GAA wherever it can and put in CBRS equipment so it’s ready when and where it obtains a PAL, which can then be switched on immediately after it’s authorized to do so. “It’s free spectrum. It’s free bandwidth. Why not use as much as you humanly can? Leave nothing on the table,” Entner said.
Entner notes that times have changed since the early days of Wi-Fi, when operators resisted using unlicensed spectrum. Nowadays, while they still lobby for more licensed spectrum, including in the recent 6 GHz proceeding, operators are increasingly tapping into unlicensed spectrum, which, for 5G, is addressed for the first time in the latest Release 16 from 3GPP.
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Verizon was an early advocate for using LTE in unlicensed spectrum, having founded the LTE-U Forum in 2014 with then-Alcatel-Lucent (now part of Nokia), Ericsson, Qualcomm and Samsung. They released technical specifications for LTE-U in the 5 GHz band in conjunction with LTE in licensed bands. Eventually, Licensed Assisted Access (LAA) emerged through the 3GPP standards process, and all the major U.S. operators are using it.
On sites where Verizon’s CBRS spectrum has already been deployed, users are seeing an additional 40-80 MHz of LTE Band 48 per sector, which can significantly improve the overall user experience, according to Milan Milanovic, technical evangelist at Ookla.
“Ultimately all spectrum is good spectrum, but if I had to guess, 3.5 GHz might be the priority now. It will take some time before the 6 GHz NR-U radios and user terminals hit the market. There is also LAA, which can offer similar capacity to CBRS, and works very well in dense urban areas,” Milanovi said.
The question is: How much could an operator conceivably get out of the 3.5 GHz spectrum if they were to combine the GAA along with whatever they win via the PAL auction?
The FCC’s auction rules allow bidders to bid for no more than four generic blocks of spectrum (40 MHz) per county. Per FCC specifications, 80 MHz of spectrum will routinely be available for GAA, and sometimes as much as the full 150 MHz will be available if none of the higher priority users need the spectrum in a given location, according to Federated Wireless, one of the Spectrum Access System (SAS) administrators.
“It could potentially make a huge difference,” said Kurt Schaubach, CTO at Federated Wireless, which is preparing to offer a sort of Airbnb for CBRS spectrum on the secondary market. “I think in many circumstances, especially early on in the deployment, there will be opportunities for operators to gain access to a very large portion of the band, if not all of it in some areas,” especially in more sparsely populated areas, he said.
In the urban markets, where a lot of interest is expected in the auction, “that ability to combine PAL and GAA is very powerful” and will be the starting point for many players to get into 5G, rather than waiting for C-band 3.7 GHz to become available.