After almost a decade of study and work, the US government has mostly completed its testing of commercial operations in the shared 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum band, and initial commercial launches in the band could happen within the next few weeks.
A wide range of companies are stepping forward with plans for the spectrum, ranging from bridging the digital divide to building private wireless networks.
Fixed wireless in rural areas
For example, cable company Midco said it plans to use fixed wireless services in 3.5GHz spectrum to expand its existing wired network coverage area. Already the company has tested 3.5GHz operations with Spectrum Access System (SAS) vendor Federated Wireless and equipment vendor Telrad for a planned multi-million dollar wireless network buildout with those vendors.
Midco CTO Jonathan Pederson explained that the company intends to use its existing fiber network coupled with a planned 3.5GHz fixed wireless network to expand its current coverage area to roughly 100,000 new potential customers. He said the company expects to sign up around 20,000 total new customers through the effort. Midco, which offers Internet and TV services in locations across South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas and Wisconsin, currently counts around 400,000 wired Internet customers on its existing cable network.
Pederson described the wireless effort as an "edge out" strategy, where Midco will essentially beam fixed wireless Internet services to customers on either side of its existing fiber lines. He said that, by using fixed wireless technologies, Midco could extend its reach up to 30 miles beyond its fiber coverage area. He said the company plans to connect wireless transmission antennas located on water towers, grain silos and other structures to its fiber network through 11GHz wireless backhaul links reaching up to 23 miles. He said 3.5GHz transmissions from those towers could then reach customers up to 7 miles away. Midco plans to offer fixed wireless download speeds of up to 100 Mbit/s and upload speeds up to 20 Mbit/s, though monthly pricing hasn't yet been determined.
Part of Midco's fixed wireless efforts will be funded by the $38.9 million the company won through the government's CAF II auction last year. Midco was one of the big winners in that auction, which essentially distributed a total of $1.5 billion in government money to companies that promise to build Internet services in rural areas.
Pederson said Midco is mostly ready to start building its CBRS network.
But Midco isn't the only company planning to make use of the government's newly freed 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum. And fixed wireless Internet isn't the only service the spectrum will support.
Private LTE networks in CBRS
For example, Landmark Dividend plans to use 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum to build out a range of different private LTE networks for its customers. Landmark Dividend owns leases on the ground beneath cell towers, billboards and other types of property, and is looking to expand into some wireless services in part through using the CBRS band.
Dan Parsons, Landmark's chief operating officer, said one of the company's initial CBRS contracts is with the public transit authority in Dallas. The company is building a private LTE network for the authority to connect up to 500 information kiosks across 90 bus and railway platforms in Dallas. The kiosks will display local information like nearby restaurants and will broadcast WiFi connections for commuters, and will also transmit video surveillance back to Dallas public safety officials. Parsons explained that it's cheaper to connect the kiosks with wireless connections than with fiber, and that fixed wireless services in 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum can handle the bandwidth necessary to transmit up to 1,200 simultaneous video surveillance feeds.
Jared V. Pickrell, Landmark's SVP of engineering, said that the Dallas network is just one example of the many kinds of private LTE networks that the company can build for its customers. He said the network will use Ericsson's core and antenna equipment, Federated Wireless' SAS and Cradlepoint's receivers.
Importantly, Pickrell said Landmark's network in Dallas could launch as early as August.
NTIA finishes SAS testing
The CBRS Alliance this week is hosting its annual members meeting in Charlotte, NC, and officials attending the event have promised that initial CBRS deployments are mere weeks away. Specifically, according to the alliance, the NTIA has finished its testing of the SAS element in the CBRS band -- a major milestone considering many had expected that testing to be finished last year.
Now that NTIA's SAS testing is finished, FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly said in a speech at the CBRS Alliance meeting that initial commercial CBRS deployments could happen "within a few weeks of today."
Such testing is critical considering CBRS spectrum will be shared between commercial users and the federal government. Specifically, the US Navy has long used the 3.5GHz CBRS band for radar along the US coastline. Thus, the SAS element of the CBRS band will help move around actual users to prevent them from interfering with US Navy operations.
However, full-blown commercial CBRS operations likely won't happen until the third quarter of this year. That's because the "Initial Commercial Deployments" (ICD) that FCC Commissioner O'Rielly talked about will involve FCC staff essentially looking over vendors' shoulders to make sure that everything is working right. If everything looks OK during the IDCs, only then will the FCC allow real commercial deployments.
Further, those deployments will only make use of roughly half of the 150MHz CBRS band, the unlicensed half that's called General Authorized Access (GAA). Much like with WiFi, just about anyone can use unlicensed spectrum. The other half of the CBRS band will be reserved for licensed operations -- meaning, the only entities that will be able to use that portion of the band will be those that own a CBRS spectrum license. The licensed half of the CBRS band, under the Priority Access License (PAL) label, is expected to be released in the second quarter of 2020, at the earliest.
Interestingly, Midco's Pederson said the cable company likely would bid for CBRS spectrum licenses.