Gas prices plummeted in 2014 and have stayed that way thanks mainly to fracking, a process that extracts oil from reservoirs that previously were impractical to tap. New technologies and regulations aim to unlock another increasingly scarce, non-renewable natural resource: wireless spectrum.
The Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan, released in 2010, recommended finding an additional 500 MHz of spectrum by 2020. In 2015, the FCC freed up 150 MHz in the 3.5 GHz band by establishing the Citizen Broadband Radio Service (CBRS). That swath of spectrum already is home to satellite and military radar services, but CBRS means other commercial services now can share the band with those incumbents.
CBRS will enable a wide variety of indoor and outdoor applications:
- Cellular operators could use CBRS to offer more bandwidth by combining 3.5 GHz with the other bands where they have licenses. For example, when a customer wants to download a large file or stream a 4K video, her device could aggregate channels from one or more cellular bands, plus 3.5 GHz, to create a pipe fat enough to deliver the necessary throughout.
- Cable operators and other companies could use CBRS to offer wireless service. They also could partner with a cellular operator to provide service in areas where they don’t have CBRS infrastructure.
- Businesses could use CBRS to create their own private wireless network, such as around an office, campus, or factory, similar to how they use Wi-Fi today.
Why 3.5 GHz? One reason is because many other countries are allocating that band for use with Long Term Evolution (LTE), also known as fourth-generation (4G) cellular. So although CBRS is brand new, it can immediately leverage the mature, global ecosystem of LTE chipsets and other products, including those developed for non-CBRS applications in the 3.5 GHz band. Because LTE has already spent years riding down the cost curve, CBRS products also can leverage its mature cost structure.
CBRS shoehorns new users into the 3.5 GHz band by creating a three-tier framework of sharing. The licensing rules protect the incumbent government and satellite users from interference by the newcomers, which are known as priority access and general authorized access. Technology enables that protection by sensing when incumbent users are active so priority and general authorized access users know to stay quiet.
A trade organization, the CBRS Alliance, is shepherding the technology, such as by creating a product certification program to ensure multi-vendor interoperability. The CBRS Alliance was founded in August 2016 by six companies, including Intel and Qualcomm. In February 2017, Samsung Electronics America and the four largest U.S. mobile operators joined the alliance, which now has 37 members. It wouldn’t have so much support so quickly if many of tech’s major companies didn’t see the CBRS concept as a viable way to help alleviate the spectrum crunch.
Although CBRS is brand-new, some vendors and operators demoed products at Mobile World Congress in February 2017. In an upcoming blog, we’ll look at the types of CBRS products to expect over the next few years and the applications they’ll enable.
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