Two Months Before PAL Auction, CBRS Bidding Plans an Open Question

Randy Sukow


During a webinar titled “Service Providers and CBRS: Where’s the Opportunity?” the question became, “What is the purpose of CBRS?” The FCC and others have touted the Citizens Broadband Radio Service in the 3.5 GHz band as the important early mid-band spectrum for 5G mobile networks, while others see it as a potential fixed wireless alternative for rural broadband service.

CBRS is unlike other wireless opportunities because it potentially could support many wireless apps and those apps could run side-by-side in the same geographic areas. Equipment developers are watching to see if any of those uses eventually becomes dominant.

“I think it’s the benefit and the bedevilment of CBRS at the same time, that there is such a broad range of applications,” said Stephen Rayment, VP, Technology Solutions, Ericsson, during the webinar earlier this week, part of a series of CBRS-related online activities organized by online publication FierceWireless.

In two months, starting July 23, the FCC will begin an auction for CBRS Priority Access Licenses (PALs). But nobody knows yet who will win most of the licenses and dominate the direction of CBRS development. Will it be the large mobile carriers seeking more 5G capacity? Will it be rural ISPs seeking to take advantage of 3.5 GHz propagation for fixed wireless? Will entrepreneurs develop indoor CBRS technologies to complement Wi-Fi connections?

Part of the lingering uncertainty around CBRS is nobody knows how much value bidders will place on “priority access.” Some wireless service providers already use the 3550-3700 MHz band on a secondary basis through the General Authorized Access (GAA) alternative. They can operate there as long as they do not interfere with PALs or incumbent license holders. For some bidders in some areas, that may be enough.

“The more congested the use scenario is, the more important a PAL will become, so if you’re a WISP, the closer you are to an urban or suburban area, a PAL probably becomes more important than if you’re out in the middle of Wyoming,” said Claude Aiken, CEO of the Wireless ISP Association (WISPA). “But WISPs historically have been much more tolerant of accepting interference.” Some of those providers might be willing to operate with GAA even in congested areas.

“If you’re in a rural community, is a PAL license as needed? Probably not. At the same time, the jury is still out,” said Michael Scardina, director of Network Strategies and Technologies for Armstrong Group, a cable TV multiple system operator (MSO). Industry might not have a good feel for the importance of priority access and where it will be important until the auction ends, he said.

It is possible that large cable companies will be major participant in the CBRS auction. Some cable companies could be seeking to build augmented wireless services to add on to MVNO-based mobile services, while others potentially could use the band to complement support existing internet and video services.

“The cable operators have different assets and each one has its own strengths and weaknesses in their subscriber bases. That’s what’s going to drive their use cases. It could be augmenting or complementary to their cable networks,” said Mark Poletti, director, Wireless Network Technologies, CableLabs.

Aiken said that a wide variety of devices has emerged to cover the many possible CBRS uses. “It looks like a small cell deployment to start with, but the range of uses is pretty wide,” he said. “It’s a fascinating Swiss army knife of spectrum for a variety of different approaches.”

Prior to the panel session, the webcast began with a FierceWireless interview of FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who took the lead in developing the CBRS auction rules. O’Rielly said he also is unsure of how the auction and the 3.5 GHz band will play out. “That’s the beauty of the auction process and the market process,” he said. “It puts the licenses in the hands of those who value them the most.”

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