NTIA delivers ammunition to spectrum sharing advocates

An NTIA report found that the number of CBRS devices grew by 121% over a 21-month period. That could give leverage to players that support spectrum sharing, including the US military.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

May 2, 2023

5 Min Read
NTIA delivers ammunition to spectrum sharing advocates

A new study from a White House agency highlights growing interest in 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum, a band that is shared between commercial and military users. The study's findings could be a knock against the 5G industry as it tries to wrest control of the lower 3GHz spectrum band from the US military.

The study by the NTIA – the federal agency charged with advising the White House on telecommunications policy – represents the latest development in a widening policy battle, and it's not clear how the issue might be resolved.

Billions of dollars hang in the balance, depending on how federal spectrum regulators move forward. The C-band spectrum auction two years ago raised more than $50 billion for the US Treasury after 5G players managed to convince federal regulators to reallocate spectrum away from some satellite operators.

Innovative frameworks

The NTIA conducted research into the 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum band through the Institute for Telecommunication Sciences (ITS), its research and engineering arm.

According to an NTIA blog post, ITS researchers found that the number of CBRS devices – including cell towers – grew by 121% over a 21-month period. The agency argued that the findings highlight demand for the spectrum and the success of spectrum sharing in CBRS.

"Innovative spectrum sharing frameworks are key to unlocking additional bandwidth for wireless connectivity across the country," Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information April McClain-Delaney said in the NTIA post. "The success and growth of the CBRS band shows the promise of dynamic spectrum sharing to make more efficient use of this finite resource."

The findings come just months after the US wireless industry's main trade group, CTIA, released a 10-page report authored by Recon Analytics that was critical of the CBRS marketplace.

Figure 1: (Source: Phil Harvey/Alamy Stock Photo) (Source: Phil Harvey/Alamy Stock Photo)

"A review of today's CBRS marketplace shows that CBRS does not live up to the hype as the foundation of innovation and should not be a model for future spectrum policy," Recon Analytics' Roger Entner said late last year.

In a statement after the release of the NTIA study, CTIA reiterated its stance: "CBRS remains an unproven experiment in spectrum sharing, with attributes such as low power levels, which make it impossible to provide broad coverage. To deliver secure and reliable wireless to all Americans, and secure America’s economic and innovation leadership, we need a pipeline of exclusive-use, full power licensed spectrum."

The FCC opened up the CBRS band for unlicensed commercial operations in 2019, after years of work among policymakers. However, the US Navy is still permitted to use the band around some US coastlines under a unique spectrum sharing model.

CTIA – which represents big 5G providers like T-Mobile, Verizon and others – has generally opposed spectrum sharing. Instead, the trade group is working to obtain exclusive spectrum for its members that they won't have to share with anyone else.

A spectrum crunch

The CTIA's latest spectrum gambit centers on arguments that the US wireless industry is in desperate need of more spectrum. The association recently released a study showing that wireless networks could become overloaded in just a few years if regulators don't release more spectrum to the industry.

The financial analysts at New Street Research recently sought to put CTIA's latest argument into context.

"To be clear, the industry does not want (or need) the spectrum tomorrow. They are capital constrained due to purchases they have made for midband spectrum to offer 5G services and still engaged in deploying on that spectrum," the analysts wrote in a recent report to investors. "Further, the carriers haven't even fully deployed the multi-layer MIMO base stations that will further multiply their capacity."

However, the analysts acknowledged that it can take regulators up to 12 years to reallocate spectrum for commercial users. Therefore, "the industry must begin the process well before it is ready to write new checks," they said.

CTIA has been very clear in its desire to push regulators to reallocate some or all of the 3.1GHz-3.45GHz band exclusively for 5G. However, the US Department of Defense currently uses the band and has been vocal about wanting to share the band rather than relinquish it completely.

As noted by the New Street analysts, military officials estimate it could cost up to $120 billion to move Department of Defense radar operations off the 3.1GHz-3.45GHz band in order to free it up for exclusive commercial 5G operations.

Money will likely be a key factor affecting the fate of the 3.1GHz-3.45GHz band. If auctioning the band for 5G generates cash for the US Treasury, that might sway regulators in CTIA's favor.

"Exclusive [spectrum use] generally has an upper hand in terms of politics, as exclusive is the way to maximize revenues for the Treasury," the New Street analysts wrote.

However, they noted that an auction of the 3.1GHz-3.45GHz band may have to generate enough revenues – potentially $120 billion – to pay for US military radar to be moved to another band. It's unlikely an auction would generate that much from 5G providers in the midst of significant cost-cutting efforts.

The spectrum-sharing topic is expected to dominate policy discussions throughout this summer.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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