2019 Preview: CBRS ecosystem proves how sharing works

Spectrum sharing in the Citizens Broadband Radio Service band involves protecting incumbent users—mostly government radar systems like those used by Navy ships. (Pixabay)

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our 2019 Preview feature, which looks at the big topics facing the industry next year. Click here for the 2019 preview in the wireless industry, click here for the 2019 preview in the video industry and click here for the 2019 preview in the wireline industry.

Throughout most of 2018, the industry debated how the rules in the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band should work. At the same time, CBRS stakeholders forged ahead, knowing that at least some components would remain unchanged as the industry debated how the Priority Access Licenses (PALs) would shake out.

When the rules were first adopted in 2015, the FCC assumed the 3.5 GHz band would be focused on LTE and small cell deployments, but as time went on it had to recognize that other countries were using 3.5 GHz for 5G. In the end, the commission said its revised rules are designed to increase flexibility so that licensees can efficiently deploy next-generation 5G networks in addition to—not in lieu of—the technologies the commission contemplated in 2015.

The entire CBRS industry toiled throughout 2018 to prepare the General Authorized Access portion for commercial launch. Stakeholders, including those serving as Spectrum Access System (SAS) administrators, performed countless tests and trials to ensure all systems are a go.

In December, the NTIA announced its engineers had completed performance certification lab testing of Environmental Sensing Capability equipment—the sensors that will help enable dynamic sharing between U.S. Navy radars and CBRS devices.

The 3.5 GHz CBRS band will enable operators to add capacity outdoors and/or to deliver a fixed wireless service in rural areas, which is what AT&T aims to do in 2019. Another early use for the band is private LTE or industrial internet of things. In the manufacturing space, for example, factories will be able to operate more efficiently thanks to low latency, security and edge computing. When smartphones supporting the 3.5 GHz band become available—also expected in 2019—consumers are likely to experience significantly faster connections.

In approving final changes to the rules, the FCC acknowledged it’s embarking on something that’s never been done before. It’s never used a SAS to coordinate spectrum access, and it’s never engaged in a “use-or-share” regime. But after a lot of coordination between small and rural wireless companies, the cable industry, wireline and big wireless carriers, the 3.5 GHz ecosystem is poised to prove a unique sharing regime can work while protecting incumbents.