Editor’s Corner—Industry pumped for 3.5 GHz but mostly mum about handsets

The 3.5 GHz band is used in other parts of the world but in the U.S., it’s going to be governed by a three-tiered spectrum authorization framework.

Monica Alleven editor's corner

Ask the usual suspects when the first 3.5 GHz smartphones are expected to hit the market and things get eerily quiet.

A projected timeline from the CBRS Alliance showed the organization expects at least one handset to be approved by December 2017. But an alliance spokesperson also noted that such timelines are subject to change.

According to one source who asked to remain anonymous, Verizon asked Apple for 3.5 GHz CBRS support in the next iPhone. When questioned on the topic, Verizon declined to comment on that or when it expects any handset, iOS or Android, to support 3.5 GHz.

Neither Apple nor Samsung chose to comment, although ZTE told FierceWirelessTech that it does not have plans to introduce a phone with the 3.5 GHz CBRS band this year. However, carriers have shown interest in this band in 2018, and ZTE will be working with them on their requirements, according to a company statement.

Of course, Qualcomm has announced 3.5 GHz support in the U.S. in the Snapdragon X20 modem. However, it’s not commenting on carrier or OEM roadmaps.

Why so much mystery about when handsets are going to support this band when everybody is so excited about the opportunities the 3.5 GHz CBRS band promises?

Despite a whole lot of hard work and milestones passed, there’s still more work to be done in terms of getting the ecosystem up and running. The CBRS Alliance continues to press the FCC to get moving on certification amid rumblings that the FCC could revisit the rules for 3.5 GHz, even this late in the game.

T-Mobile has argued that the rules for licensing the CBRS band should be revisited to create more certainty and align with 5G requirements globally. As recently as a few weeks ago, its executives met with FCC officials in part to press for 3.5 GHz global harmonization for 5G.

RELATED: Google, Boingo, Microsoft and more urge quick FCC action on 3.5 GHz CBRS band

Last week, a group of 17 entities, including Google, Boingo Wireless, Microsoft and American Tower, sent a letter to the FCC urging the commission to stick to the rules it adopted in 2015 and affirmed in 2016 for the 3.5 GHz CBRS band.

The 3.5 GHz band is used in other parts of the world, but in the U.S., it’s going to be governed by a three-tiered spectrum authorization framework to accommodate a variety of commercial uses on a shared basis with incumbent federal and nonfederal users of the band. Access and operations will be managed by a dynamic spectrum access system, conceptually similar to the databases used to manage TV White Spaces devices.

The three tiers are: Incumbent Access, Priority Access (PAL) and General Authorized Access (GAA). The expectation is the GAA part of the program will debut before the PAL kicks in.

The Wireless Innovation Forum (WinnForum) and the CBRS Alliance—which has grown from a handful of companies to at least 54 and counting today—have accomplished a great deal toward establishing what’s going to be required to make the unique sharing paradigm work. However, they still need final certification from the FCC, something a lot of members of the alliance have been actively pursuing.   

Speaking at a Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA) event in Orlando, Florida, last month that was moderated by my colleague Colin Gibbs, Chris Stark, head of strategy and business development for Nokia in North America and one of the folks who started the CBRS Alliance, said the goal is to ensure a commercial release capability by the end of this year for 3.5 GHz CBRS.

“I know there’s a lot of urgency amongst everybody in the alliance,” including at the WinnForum, equipment manufacturers, operators and so on to try to make sure that happens, he said. “From our perspective, the thing we all need is we need a certification process because we have radios already but we need the certification process before we say we’re actually commercially ready to go.”

“I think there’s a lot of reason for optimism. Everybody’s moving things forward, whether it’s on the device side,” the radio side or the Spectrum Access System (SAS), he added. “I see an awful lot of movement there and a lot of reason to be optimistic that we’ve got a shot at the end of this year.”

Maybe the handset issue really isn’t such a mystery. It’s just competitive companies not wanting to show their cards. But the uncertainly overshadowing the band due to potential rule rewrites is causing pause before making promises about handset delivery dates.

What really needs to happen is the FCC should quit squirreling around with details that were already decided more than a year ago and cut bait. Once that happens, the innovation that everybody is talking about with this band can finally happen. — Monica, @FierceWrlssTech