Google, Virginia Tech get ‘schooled’ on CBRS: Special Report

The Virginia Tech Foundation won eight blocks in the FCC's PAL auction, covering the counties of Montgomery and Craig. (Getty Images)

The 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band was known as the “Innovation Band” early in its iteration, and that trait seems to be emerging in full force during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The many iterations of CBRS will be discussed on Tuesday, October 20, during the FierceWireless’ CBRS Week Fall, a free, virtual event. Speakers from a variety of industries will explore the band’s importance in education, public spaces and the commercial real estate (CRE) markets.

Specifically, representatives from Virginia Tech, Google, Vornado Realty Trust and the City of Las Vegas will be on hand to discuss use cases and where CBRS fits into their agendas.

Many of the same companies that founded the CBRS Alliance are heavily invested in Wi-Fi, and one of the questions that usually comes to mind is how Wi-Fi and CBRS will compete for the same or similar market. After all, one of the early use cases often discussed for CBRS was busy venues like sports stadiums – the same places Wi-Fi resides.

Innovation during pandemic

Interestingly, some venues are installing CBRS in order to make Wi-Fi work better. At the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), for example, some critical infrastructure that can’t be wired is getting moved to CBRS and off of Wi-Fi.

In a way, it’s an IoT use case, whereby the institution is moving gear like security cameras, parking meters and other systems to CBRS in order for students to get better access to the Wi-Fi, according to Kevin Hanson, who does business development for the Wireless Services team at Google.  

It’s a two-way street for schools and higher educational institutions. If students are streaming video, they don’t want that messing with a school’s security cameras. On the flip side, schools don’t want the security cameras weighing down on students’ ability to use Wi-Fi.

“It’s an interesting way of making Wi-Fi better with CBRS,” he told Fierce.

RELATED: Metaswitch, AT&T, Celona discuss the elements of a CBRS network: Special Report

Google, which is an FCC-certified Spectrum Access System (SAS) administrator, also offers a CBRS network planning tool, which schools can use to see where CBRS is available and plan their network accordingly. It’s particularly popular during the pandemic, which has shown a spotlight on the digital divide across the country. 

“We have seen a tremendous amount of interest,” Hanson said, with some very sophisticated deployments already being done and others just getting underway.

Combining PALs and GAA spectrum

Many of these schools are using the General Authorized Access (GAA) portion of the CBRS band, which is unlicensed. Others, including Virginia Tech Foundation, participated in the FCC’s auction for Priority Access Licenses (PALs), and they’re in some cases combining the licensed CBRS with unlicensed.  

The Virginia Tech Foundation won eight blocks in the PAL auction, with four blocks in Montgomery County, Virginia, and four blocks in Craig County, Virginia, according to Scott Midkiff, vice president of Information Technology and chief information officer at Virginia Tech. The foundation bid over $1.1 million for the licenses. 

Virginia Tech’s main campus is in Montgomery County, where the university also has a large research farm. Craig County is a rural county that is adjacent to Montgomery County.

Plans for the spectrum are still being developed, but one of the drivers for purchasing the CBRS licenses is for research and education purposes – from short-term experiments to long-term demonstration projects for spectrum management, wireless communications, mobile systems, the IoT and broadband “last mile.” Application areas up for study include telehealth, smart farming and public safety, according to Midkiff.

RELATED: 25 Utah schools to deploy private LTE using CBRS

The institute also is interested in using CBRS to support private 4G LTE and, eventually, 5G services for use on campus and potentially at other Virginia Tech locations in Montgomery County to support the university’s missions, he said.

Partnerships are another area where Virginia Tech could work with public and private entities to provide advanced communications and possibly accelerate broadband access in unserved and underserved areas in the region.

“Our first use is likely to be a private LTE network, specifically to offer connectivity for Internet of Things use cases including sensors, energy management, security cameras, etc.,” Midkiff said. “A university campus is much like a small city, and there are many applications where controlled, low-latency, and secure connectivity can be used for smart city/smart campus applications.”

Virginia Tech expects both faculty and students will be using the spectrum. Faculty and graduate and undergraduate students working with them will have opportunities to use the spectrum for both education and research, especially in areas like spectrum management, mobile networks, IoT, smart cities and smart farming, he said, noting they hope to have ways to quickly deploy test beds for both research and hands-on instruction.

Depending on use cases, it may end up using GAA access for some use cases on the campus in Montgomery County. Virginia Tech also has a presence in areas not covered by its PALs, and in those locations, GAA offers the chance to use CBRS as well.