A good read from Bob O’Donnell.
As the world grows increasingly dependent on wireless devices, networks, and services, one thing has become readily apparent: open radio frequency spectrum—that is the space in which wireless signals can be sent—is an incredibly valuable asset. Long-time telecom industry observers and participants have known this to be true for some time, but events like the COVID-19 pandemic are now making a much wider audience of people—everyone from general tech industry leaders, government officials, and even technically literate consumers—understand its importance.
The challenge is that, in a country like the US with an incredibly long, rich history in wireless innovations—from the early days of over-the-air radio and TV transmissions through the era of CB radios to today’s 5G cellular networks—the once open roadways of radio signal transmission have become as packed as the highways big-city rush hours. And, just as there are few easy answers to deal with traffic congestion, finding ways to send significantly larger amounts and more types of wireless data over the physically limited capacity of viable radio spectrum is a problem. (If you’d like to learn more about frequency and radio spectrum issues, check out “The 5G Landscape, Part 2: Spectrum and Devices”, which provides a thorough explanation in plain English.)
Thankfully, over 10 years ago, members of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and other governmental officials foresaw some of these RF congestion problems and started work on an experimental project that would allow frequencies, which are typically restricted to use by one specific company, governmental agency or industry, to be shared among many different companies. The first fruits of that 10-year spectrum sharing experiment is the new CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service) which, despite the similar name, has absolutely nothing to do with the CB radios often used by truckers. CBRS also goes by the friendlier (though still slightly obtuse) OnGo name. It uses a sophisticated signal rationing technology to dynamically assign up to 150 MHz of RF spectrum that had been previously allocated solely to the US Navy across two potential tiers of users: companies that pay for a dedicated Preferred Access License (PAL) and General Authorized Access (GAA) for general purpose unlicensed use, much as WiFi works today (See “CBRS Vs. C-Band: Making Sense Of Mid-Band 5G” for more.)
The details of how it all works can get complicated quickly, but the bottom line is that the spectrum sharing technologies that enable CBRS serve as a novel means to free up some precious spectrum assets. Those assets are expected to be used to create new types of products and services—such as private cellular networks for companies—and to increase the robustness of existing networks. Most of the initial efforts to use CBRS will take advantage of and work alongside 4G LTE wireless networks and technology, but because the CBRS frequencies (between 3.5 and 3.7 GHz) are in the highly-coveted “mid-band” range of 5G frequencies, the transition to enable it for 5G use is expected to happen quickly.
One important additional detail about CBRS-capable transmitters, not previously mentioned, is that there are two different types: Class A, which is limited to 1 watt of transmission power and designed primarily for indoor applications, and Class B, which allows for up to 50 watts of transmission power and is expected to be used more for outdoor applications. This higher power level means that CBRS radios could potentially be used to supplement the bandwidth of existing cellular wireless networks. The challenge for carriers is that over 22,600 separate CBRS PAL licenses will be auctioned off this summer on a county-by-county basis. Stitching together all the necessary CBRS and traditional macro cell tower signals into a single unified service will be no small feat, but it certainly represents an important opportunity for telco providers to increase the bandwidth of their networks.
“What’s important to know about the key spectrum sharing technologies that…enable CBRS is that the exact same principles and technologies could be used in other frequency bands.”
What’s also important to know about the key spectrum sharing technologies that were developed by companies like Federated Wireless and Commscope to enable CBRS is that the exact same principles and technologies could be used in other frequency bands. In fact, the US government is in the process of investigating several more bands of spectrum right below the current CBRS range that could also potentially be shared. Thankfully, the 10 years of hard work to enable CBRS is now done, so once CBRS-based services become more widely available later this year and the technology proves itself in the field, we could see a much quicker deployment of these technologies in new spectrum bands. That, in turn, will enable a critically needed increase in overall bandwidth for major telcos and other service providers, as well as other new businesses.
As the COVID-19 crisis has clearly highlighted, the need for a strong, robust network infrastructure is critical for the functioning, not just of our economy, but our society overall. Technologies that can enable intelligent sharing of the precious spectrum resources that we all need to use can make a noticeable impact on the robustness of those networks, so let’s hope they start to get used in a significantly broader way.
Disclosure: TECHnalysis Research is a tech industry market research and consulting firm and, like all companies in that field, works with many technology vendors as clients, some of whom may be listed in this article.Get the best of Forbes to your inbox with the latest insights from experts across the globe.Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website or some of my other work here. Bob O’Donnell
Bob O’Donnell is the president, founder and chief analyst at TECHnalysis Research, a technology market research and consulting firm that counts many of tech industry’s…Read More