As the CBRS space continues to inch toward commercial launches, executives from Verizon Communications and T-Mobile recently reaffirmed their interest in deploying services in the band. And for Verizon at least, the company is considering initially using the spectrum as a way to increase capacity and speed up services for users.
"It's clearly another tool to help augment capacity," Mike Haberman, VP of Verizon's network engineering, told Light Reading recently. Haberman hinted that Verizon could use the unlicensed 3.5GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service band in the same way it currently uses the unlicensed 5GHz band via Licensed Assisted Access (LAA).
"You can transmit more power with CBRS than you can with LAA. So it helps out from that perspective," Haberman said. "The negative though is that you have to deal with the interference and everyone else using it."
Verizon currently uses the unlicensed 5GHz band via LAA technology to add extra speed and capacity to its mobile service. Basically, Verizon expands its licensed LTE signals into unlicensed 5GHz spectrum in locations where it has deployed that capability into its wireless network (customers must have LAA-capable devices as well). Using LAA, Verizon customers can stay on an LTE signal but can transmit more data because they can make use of both Verizon's licensed spectrum bands as well as the unlicensed 5GHz band. (T-Mobile and AT&T also make use of LAA.)
Similarly, Verizon could employ the same general approach in CBRS 3.5GHz spectrum, some of which is also unlicensed. Such a service would require new technology in both users' phones and in Verizon's network -- and that's exactly the direction that Verizon and its partners have been heading.
For example, in 2018 Verizon announced detailed plans to test CBRS transmissions with partners including Corning, Ericsson, Federated Wireless, Google, Nokia and Qualcomm. "Verizon will be able to use this shared spectrum to add capacity to its network. Verizon customers will benefit from more capacity, higher peak speeds and faster throughput when accessing the network," the company said at the time.
Further, in recent weeks reports have surfaced that Google's Pixel 3 phone -- sold exclusively by Verizon -- may be able to add support for the 3.5GHz LTE CBRS Band 48 via a software update, thus potentially adding another piece to a CBRS puzzle. However, Verizon's Haberman cautioned that the company sells phones that support a variety of bands in which the operator does not necessarily offer service.
T-Mobile, AT&T move toward CBRS
Nonetheless, it seems clear that the CBRS market is slowly but surely coming together. For example, in recent weeks CommScope introduced new 3.5 GHz-capable antennas for macro and small cell densification. And the CBRS Alliance and the Small Cell Forum announced a new agreement to "work together on a variety of initiatives related to the wide-scale adoption of small cells, network densification, and the development, commercialization and adoption of OnGo-certified solutions for the 3.5 GHz band." (See CBRS LTE Gets Branded as 'OnGo'.)
And Verizon isn't alone in its interest in CBRS. T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray recently said that the operator continues to test CBRS. "Continued interest from us," he said on the operator's quarterly conference call with analysts when T-Mobile was asked about its intentions related to CBRS, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of the event. "But obviously, the spectrum volume that's available there especially in a license is pretty limited. And there are some power issues and so on to work through in terms of its propagation capabilities, but we continue to look at the spectrum and evaluate and will see where the option timeline comes out."
Verizon and T-Mobile join AT&T on the CBRS scene, though AT&T has perhaps the clearest plans to use the technology. AT&T last year said said it will use equipment from Samsung and CommScope for a CBRS system initially using LTE and then transitioning to 5G, with the goal of offering fixed wireless services to homes and offices. Thus, CBRS spectrum would sit alongside the WCS spectrum AT&T is already using for its LTE-powered fixed wireless service buildout. (See AT&T Launches Fixed Wireless Internet in 9 New States.)
The CBRS sector had initially hoped to make unlicensed 3.5GHz services commercially available last year, but those plans have reportedly been delayed until the third quarter of this year, partially due to the government shutdown and partially due to continued government testing. The 3.5GHz band will be ultimately split between unlicensed usage and licensed usage, with the FCC expected to auction 3.5GHz licenses sometime later this year or in 2020. (See CBRS Players Begin to Fret Over Government Shutdown.)
Verizon's Haberman declined to discuss whether Verizon would bid for CBRS spectrum licenses.
Amazon, Google could break out in 3.5GHz
Finally, it's worth noting that major wireless network operators aren't the only big companies eyeing potential uses of the CBRS band. As the Wall Street analyst at Cowen Inc. pointed out, Amazon, Ruckus Networks (now part of Arris), Federated Wireless and others are planning to use CBRS to launch "a fully cloud-native private mobile network solution for developers, ISV's, telecom operators, public sector and enterprises for quick deployment of Industrial IoT applications, such as real-time surveillance, smart meters and worker safety monitoring."
As the Cowen analysts noted in a recent report to subscribers, IoT and cloud companies may become very interested in CBRS spectrum because it's relatively inexpensive to deploy indoors, in industrial campuses and in stadiums and public venues.
"This by itself is why companies like Amazon and Google are so interested in the CBRS band, as it could ultimately enable them to build out an IoT platform that would feed back into their cloud platforms thus enabling them to create a turnkey IoT solution that completely bypasses the incumbent wireless providers," the analysts wrote.