There’s a new SAS administrator in town: Key Bridge

coast
The ESC network is designed to protect incumbent users along the coastlines. (Pixabay)

Key Bridge Wireless is the sixth entity to be certified as a Spectrum Access System (SAS) administrator, joining Amdocs, CommScope, Federated Wireless, Google and Sony.

The FCC announced Tuesday that Key Bridge was certified as a SAS administrator in the 3.55-3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band, in consultation with the Department of Defense (DoD) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). Key Bridge is authorized to make its SAS commercially available for a five-year term.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Jesse Caulfield, CEO Key Bridge Wireless, a small company based in McLean, Virginia.

Key Bridge has been a provider of spectrum administration for commercial and professional users since 2008, working in various frequency bands, including TV white space and millimeter wave. Preliminary work for CBRS started back in the 2010 timeframe, and since then, other SAS administrators received approvals from the FCC.  

RELATED: Google, CommScope, Federated and Sony get SAS certified for CBRS

What took so long? As one might expect, it’s not exactly a slam dunk. Rivada Networks, for example, informed the FCC in January that it was withdrawing its application to act as an SAS administrator and Environmental Sensing Capability (ESC) operator in the 3.5 GHz band. A Rivada spokesman told Fierce that was because Rivada determined that becoming a SAS was “not a strategic priority” for the company.

Caulfield said Key Bridge encountered some procedural issues that eventually got sorted out. Now, he expects to launch a commercial SAS service as early as next week.

ESC network along coasts

It’s possible to act as an SAS administrator without the ESC component. If the SAS is serving utilities in the middle of the country, for example, it’s not a problem. The ESCs are built along the coastlines primarily to detect and protect Navy ships' radar. However, given that most of the U.S. population is located along the coasts, the ESC a must for anyone who wants to serve those areas and the consumer market.  

Key Bridge is in the midst of completing its ESC network, with about 45 sensors deployed along the contiguous U.S. coastlines.

Interestingly, it doesn't take that many sensors to cover a wide area, according to Caulfield. The state of Texas can be covered with three of them. California is a different case; it requires about five or six.

Key Bridge can decouple the ESC from the SAS, so it can provide ESC services to any SAS that wants it, or what it calls ESC-as-a-service.

Key Bridge is being very careful about where it’s placing the sensors, he said. “We’re putting them out on mountaintops 100 miles away from the nearest city. We’re putting them out on peninsulas, on islands,” he said. “We’re putting them very far away from populated areas specifically because we want to preserve all that power budget for the user, as opposed to for our sensors.”

RELATED: Google, Federated clash over how spectrum gets managed in CBRS, other bands

What about coming into the SAS space when established players are already offering commercial services and have been doing so for quite some time?

“Everybody sort of has their niche, and everybody is competitive. There’s nobody here that’s doing this as a science experiment,” he said. “We intend to be very, very competitive.”

CBRS remains the big play for private wireless. Yet the question remains whether the market is large enough to support six SAS administrators over the long haul.  

"While there are plenty of niches to fill, it is not clear the market can support that many profitable competitors, especially as the service is heavily regulated and difficult to differentiate," Caulfield said. "Looking forward, CBRS users should expect to see aggressive price competition in the coming months as PAL auction winners come online."