CBRS ratchets device support for 5G spec as auction kicks off

As the FCC kicks off its CBBRS Priority Access License (PAL) auction today, it’s worth noting that for many stakeholders, it represents the first mid-band opportunity for 5G in the U.S.

The auction, designated as Auction 105, will offer seven Priority Access Licenses (PALs) in each county-based license area, for a total of 22,631 PALs nationwide—the largest number of licenses for flexible-use spectrum ever made available by the FCC in a single auction. Each PAL will consist of a 10-megahertz unpaired channel in the 3.55-3.65 GHz band. 

The list of qualified bidders include the usual suspects AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, as well as cable companies like Cox, but there’s also a host of entities outside the usual realm of auction participants. Those include Chevron, Deere & Company, Duke University and Health System, and San Diego Electric Gas and Electric Company.

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The FCC rules for the 3.5 GHz CBRS band established a three-tiered, hierarchical framework to coordinate shared federal and non-federal uses. Incumbent users have the highest priority, followed by PALs, which are being auctioned starting today. The General Authorized Access (GAA) users have the lowest priority and they’re already using the band now.

Thus far, LTE has been a big focus in the CBRS ecosystem. The first two generations of the specifications for the band were solely focused on LTE. The CBRS Alliance this past February published Release 3 specifications, the first to include support for 5G New Radio (NR). The CBRS Alliance said at the time that Release 3 aligns with 3GPP’s Release 15 specifications and the work that continues in Release 4 will align with 3GPP Releases 16 and 17.

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So how many CBRS devices support 5G NR? Dave Wright, president of the CBRS Alliance, said about 25% of client devices that are authorized for CBRS, aka Band 48, have support for 5G NR. Client devices include everything from smartphone form factors to tablets, laptops, gateways and routers, IoT modules and more, he said.

That’s not to be confused with CBSDs, or Citizens Broadband Radio Service Devices, which refers to base stations or access points. The CBSDs need to communicate with one of the Spectrum Access System (SAS) administrators in order to operate in the CBRS band, but the client or end user devices don’t require awareness of the SAS as they're following the lead of the base station.

Of course, there’s a diverse and robust ecosystem available for LTE in the 3.5 GHz band today. The chipsets, infrastructure and handsets are all readily available at decent price points—there are about 91 client devices and 80 base station devices that are LTE capable, according to Wright.

LTE is going to serve just fine for the foreseeable future for a lot of the CBRS use cases that are out there, such as video security cameras and private industrial LTE networks.

However, it’s inspiring to see the rate of 5G support on the rise. “We’re encouraged at how it’s growing,” he said. “Many of the deployments are LTE today and for those who are interested in 5G, there’s that opportunity as well.”