If you can get past that unappealing acronym, you just might find that CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service) is worth paying attention to as a serious wireless network alternative for enterprises in the not-too-distant future.
It’s been hard to ignore CBRS of late, as everyone from Google to the big carriers to GE has been touting the potential benefits of indoor and outdoor LTE services within shared 3.5 GHz spectrum opened up by the FCC for commercial use. We’re talking carrier-based cellular service extensions, cable companies looking to get into wireless as well as private LTE networks within enterprises, sports stadiums and conference centers. Such services promise to complement -- and in some cases replace -- Wi-Fi, as well as pave the way for 5G wireless services
“3.5 has pretty good potential to disrupt the enterprise market,” says consultant Chetan Sharma, fresh off surveying the scene at the big Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona. “It has much better performance [than the alternatives].”
Adds Iyad Tarazi, CEO of CBRS player Federated Wireless: "A lot of the hurdles to creating a private LTE system are going away."
Given that CBRS involves an innovative new spectrum sharing scheme, it has had to overcome early skepticism, such as from the WiMAX Forum and certain entities in the utility industry. Even now, more trials and government approvals will be required before CBRS spectrum, long reserved for specialized users such as the U.S. Navy and satellite service providers, can be employed commercially. But early rollouts are expected by year-end, so it's essentially full speed ahead for CBRS.
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CBRS activity cropped up at Mobile World Congress last year, but the action was even more brisk in advance of this year's MWC and at the event itself:
*The CBRS Alliance announced that all of the Big 4 U.S. carriers have now joined its ranks, as has Samsung, bringing the total number of members near 40. The Alliance was formally introduced in February of 2016 with six founding members who had come together the previous summer, and has since added the likes of Cisco, Huawei and Comcast.
*Qualcomm and Nokia, two of those founding CBRS Alliance members, along with GE Digital, announced a private LTE-based trial network for industrial IoT. Qualcomm and Nokia also joined forces with Google parent company Alphabet’s Access Group to demo a private LTE network over CBRS spectrum at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where fans were taken inside race cars via 360-degree virtual reality.
*Alphabet’s Access team demonstrated a handful of consumer gear such as smartphones and Mi-Fi devices working with CBRS base stations and launched a program for testing whether CBRS base stations work with its Spectrum Access System (SAS).
*Federated Wireless, another of the founding CBRS Alliance members, disclosed that it has received conditional certification from the FCC for its cloud-based spectrum controller for enabling CBRS deployments. Federated also revealed it is partnering with Nokia to provide a CBRS-based LTE offering, and has tested its SAS with radio gear from Ericsson.
*The Small Cell Forum and CBRS Alliance, whose members and focus overlap to some degree, are working on a liaison agreement, according to the former.
*A slew of vendors, including Accelleran, Ruckus Wireless and SpiderCloud Wireless, all had CBRS-related demos at Mobile World Congress.
Neville Meijers, VP of Business Development at Qualcomm Technologies and chairman of the board for the CBRS Alliance, says “operators are looking at [CBRS] for additional allocation of spectrum they can utilize for broadband -- some fixed, some mobile -- and there are a number of ideas around private LTE networks with respect to campuses, enterprises and industrial IoT… This is a near-term opportunity.” A Verizon VP last week told Fierce Wireless that the carrier plans to use 3.5 GHz spectrum “as soon as practically possible,” for example.
CBRS will attract providers who already own spectrum, including those dabbling in LTE-U services that share spectrum used by Wi-Fi networks, as well as those who don’t own spectrum, Meijers says. Coverage will easily handle the inside of a home and require just a couple of small cells in an enterprise; outdoors, line-of-sight distances supported could extend beyond a mile.
The 3.5 GHz (3550-3700 MHz) band at the heart of CBRS has been identified by the FCC as an underused resource, but one that still needs to be handled smartly to avoid any possible interference with applications by incumbents. So the FCC has put rules in place requiring SAS and environmental sensory networks to manage the fair and safe use of the spectrum both by Priority Access License holders to be determined via an auction likely to be held in 2018 or 2019 and by everyone else, lumped into the General Authorized Access bucket. Google and Federated Wireless are the first two outfits to jump into the spectrum management pool, and have begun testing their offerings with one another as well as with other assorted vendors in the wireless market.
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The FCC has already been doling out licenses for vendors to perform trials, and is working with the Wireless Innovation Forum (WInnForum) to come up with an equipment certification process for later this year. As William Graff, Global TCB Program Manager at testing laboratory TUV Rheinland, says: It's a challenge building “radios smart enough to wake up, listen before they talk and figure out how not to stomp on each other.”
The CBRS Alliance will add an extra layer of certification to ensure that LTE providers in this spectrum band won’t mess up each other’s services.
While chipmakers, service providers and other equipment makers have been among the earliest supporters of CBRS, end user device makers have been slower to embrace the opportunity, at least publicly. Apple, HP and Lenovo are among those that have not signed on as alliance members.
One reason for that could be that the FCC hasn’t provided a lot of information on exactly what equipment makers will need to do to make their products work in 3.5 GHz environments. “I just had a question from one of my clients – and I went and sent something right to the FCC -- about the implementation of Part 96 [of the FCC rules] and whether people who have Part 90 stations are going to have to flip them into Part 96 and in what time period,” says TUV’s Graff. In theory, manufacturers with Part 90 radios might be able to just change out some of the logic to comply, he says.
CBRS Alliance’s Meijers says: “If the big handset vendors support the band then there will be a rich and robust handset ecosystem, and that is largely driven by the large mobile network operators in terms of specifying their own device requirements. But outside of that there are a lot of device manufacturers who are interested in providing modules for IoT purposes or tablets or laptops that would also be connected into the network.”
Federated Wireless has been a mover and shaker in CBRS from the start, having written the charter for the CBRS Alliance and recruited Intel and Qualcomm as founding members. The Arlington, Va., company plans to deliver its spectrum controller to existing service providers, cable companies and new managed service providers such as building management companies as well as integrate it with OEM gear such as access points and small cells. Applications such as point-to-multipoint, small cell backhaul and last-mile fiber replacement will emerge first, CEO Tarazi says.
But the former Sprint and Nextel VP is particularly bullish on the opportunity for private LTE networks in the 3.5 GHz band and the path such 4G networks could provide to 5G. Private LTE networks supporting IoT applications in factories and refineries could very well start emerging late this year or early next year, Tarazi says.
It was important to get Intel involved in CBRS from the start, Tarazi says, to ensure 3.5 GHz technology would get built for general purpose computing devices such as laptops in much the same way Wi-Fi support did. “This is not some kind of closed carrier system,” he says.
That’s crucial in that the 3.5 GHz band is actually shaping up as a 5G wireless band in other countries that didn’t have the spectrum allocated for specific applications as the United States did. “This sharing system allows the United States to participate in 5G over time… and have global coordination and harmonization,” Tarazi says. “Both Intel and Qualcomm have announced chipsets that are compatible with 5G that are in the 3.5 GHz band.”
Tarazi foresees 4G services up to 1Gbps and 5G services 5 to 10 times that, especially for outdoor point-to-point and last-mile replacement purposes. Private LTE services will blow away Wi-Fi for applications such as streaming 4K video, he claims.
The hope is that if resource sharing in the 3.5 GHz band pans out that lots more spectrum will be freed up for sharing.
And that goes beyond the United States. Meijers of the CBRS Alliance says the world is watching how the U.S. 3.5 GHz experience goes.
"There is really very little spectrum under 6 GHz and even in millimeter wave that can be cleared very quickly and licensed out," he says. "So the shared model is one that a lot of regulators are looking to the U.S. on the CBRS band to actually prove out. And if we are able to prove out that people can utilize the spectrum efficiently and fairly, then I think a lot of regulators would be extremely interested to deploy the same kind of model to free up shared spectrum in their own markets, whether it be in LTE or 5G in the future."