CBRS takes a step forward as NTIA completes testing

NTIA David Redl (Mike Dano / FierceWireless)
David Redl leads the NTIA. (Mike Dano / FierceWireless)

The NTIA said it finished its testing of the CBRS 3.5 GHz spectrum-sharing scheme—a key milestone as the spectrum nears commercial availability.

“Engineers at NTIA’s Institute for Telecommunication Sciences (ITS) have completed performance certification lab testing of Environmental Sensing Capability (ESC) equipment—the sensors that will help enable dynamic sharing in the 3.5 GHz band between U.S. Navy radars and Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) devices,” NTIA wrote on its blog.

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Indeed, the CBRS Alliance—an association of wireless companies looking to deploy LTE and other technologies into the 3.5 GHz band—acknowledged the work the government agency has put into its testing effort. “There’s been an unprecedented amount of collaboration to get us to where we are today,” Federated Wireless CTO Kurt Schaubach wrote on the CBRS Alliance’s website. “NTIA-ITS has shown itself to not only be extremely competent in evaluating SAS capabilities throughout the pre-test and testing process, but also to be an enormously dedicated team. We know for a fact that the testing team at NTIA-ITS was in the lab working through the Thanksgiving holiday—a testament to their dedication and partnership with the industry ecosystem.”

The announcement by the NTIA is noteworthy considering that a number of executives in the 3.5 GHz CBRS space had been quietly worrying that the NTIA was taking too long to test elements being used in the technology. The NTIA, for its part, argued that it was going as fast as it could.

The Environmental Sensing Capability (ESC) sensors and the Spectrum Access Systems (SAS) tested by the NTIA are necessary for communications in the CBRS band. Specifically, the ESC sensors are designed to alert the associated SASs when federal radar systems are operating in the 3.5 GHz band, so that the SAS can take immediate action to manage CBRS devices to prevent interference.

It’s no surprise that the NTIA’s ITS is involved in the issue. The NTIA is essentially a steward of spectrum for government users and is therefore playing a key role in the CBRS space because the 3.5 GHz band is being shared between commercial users and the military, mainly the U.S. Navy. The spectrum sharing scenario for CBRS is a first-of-its-kind in the world.

The end of NTIA’s testing further sets up unlicensed use of the 3.5 GHz band by early next year; those in the industry expect the FCC to release 3.5 GHz licenses in an auction by 2020.

Importantly, CBRS testing isn’t the only thing on the NTIA’s plate. The Trump administration recently tasked the agency with tallying the nation’s spectrum resources, including any spectrum currently used by government users that could be released for commercial purposes. “One of the biggest challenges we face as an agency is a dual mandate from Congress. My job is to protect our government incumbents to make sure they have the assets they need, and to respond to Congress’s mandate to make more spectrum available for the private sector,” explained NTIA’s David Redl in a new post on the agency’s website. “By getting some good data on a longer timeline, we’re hopeful we can do some planning for the longer term, and build a framework that can survive well beyond this administration.”

Further, Redl said that the NTIA may well be able to release additional spectrum for commercial uses: “We are trying to make more shared spectrum available. We could end up with a very large chunk of spectrum in the mid-band, which is the sweet spot for both coverage and capacity to come meet our 5G needs. The President has made it very clear that he expects us to be leaders in 5G and secure 5G, not just getting equipment out there but equipment that we know meets our national needs in terms of protecting Americans’ data. The work on the mid-band is particularly critical.”