Government Testing Adds 5-Month Delay (& Counting) to CBRS

Although the NTIA has already completed its Environmental Sensing Capability (ESC) testing, the agency continues to test the other key element element of the novel spectrum-sharing setup for the 3.5GHz band, the Spectrum Access System (SAS).

The ongoing testing, coupled with the recent government shutdown, appears to have delayed the launch of initial 3.5GHz services by at least five months. In August of 2018, players had hoped for initial commercial launches by the end of 2018. Now they're hoping for initial launches by May 2019 or so.

"Testing is ongoing," wrote an NTIA spokesperson in response to questions on the SAS topic from Light Reading. The 3.5GHz band is commonly referred to as the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band.

Nonetheless, players are working to remain upbeat. For example, CommScope and Google issued a press release last week that their joint ESC passed "all required testing for certification." And though the company didn't issue a press release about it, FCC documents indicate that Federated Wireless' ESC also passed testing.

Thus, the Google/CommScope announcement really stands as more of a way to maintain CBRS interest than to signal any major forward momentum, considering the NTIA's Institute for Telecommunication Sciences (ITS) said it completed ESC testing in December. The next step in the process is for the FCC, in coordination with NTIA and the Department of Defense, to review the ITS' test results. Both Google/CommScope and Federated just this week sent the FCC the results of the ITS' testing. If the FCC signs off on the ITS' test results, that would pave the way for an initial commercial launch of the ESC portion of the spectrum-sharing setup in the CBRS band.

Testing, and more testing
But initial deployments in the CBRS band can't start until the NTIA's ITS also completes its testing of the SAS portion of the spectrum-sharing setup in the CBRS band. And, just like the ESC portion, the ITS' testing results must be sent to the FCC to receive that agency's approval before initial commercial operations can begin in the CBRS band. Mark Gibson, director of business development for CommScope's Comsearch division, said the company expects the FCC to sign off on both the SAS and ESC portions of the CBRS spectrum-sharing setup by the middle of the second quarter of 2019.

But real, full-blown commercial CBRS operations still won't be able to happen then. Once the FCC signs off on the ITS' ESC and SAS test results, the agency will then only allow "Initial Commercial Deployments" (ICD). Companies have to apply for FCC approval to conduct ICDs, and agency staff essentially will look over vendors' shoulders while they run these initial commercial deployments to make sure that everything is working right. According to the FCC, SAS administrators that have submitted ICD proposals include Amdocs, CommScope, Federated, Google, Key Bridge and Sony.

If everything looks OK during the initial commercial deployments, only then will the FCC allow real commercial deployments. The CBRS Alliance has said that could happen sometime in the third quarter of this year.

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So why does the CBRS band require so much testing? It's mainly because this is the first time ever, anywhere in the world, that 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 ESC is needed to see whether US Navy radar systems are using the 3.5GHz band. If they are using the band, the ESC would tell the SAS about the situation, so that a SAS vendor could move around actual users in the CBRS band to prevent them from interfering with US Navy operations.

And that's why testing has been taking so long. Aside from the government shutdown that cut out a month's worth of CBRS testing, the NTIA, DoD and FCC also don't want to be blamed for a CBRS setup that could potentially cause a US Navy hiccup or, in the worst case, a disaster.

So, testing continues.

Plenty of interest
But, judging from some recent CBRS product announcements, the government's ongoing testing doesn't seem to be dampening enthusiasm for CBRS. In the past few weeks:

  • Motorola Solutions announced its new MOTOTRBO Nitro LTE CBRS product for enterprises.
  • Akoustis Technologies released its new filter samples for CBRS.
  • Nokia launched its Certified Professional Installer (CPI) Training Program Administrator for CBRS.
  • Casa Systems introduced CBRS RAN and core products.
  • PCTEL announced an expanded line of CBRS antennas and enhanced testing capabilities.
  • The Small Cell Forum and the CBRS Alliance announced an agreement to cooperate.
  • Cambium Networks announced a teaming with Federated to add CBRS connectivity to its fixed wireless line of products.
  • And Syniverse, Arris' Ruckus Networks and Federated announced a CBRS LTE product for private wireless networks. And Syniverse said it would deploy the product on its corporate campus.

But perhaps the best indication of the level of interest in the CBRS band comes from the executives who are working in Washington D.C. to get the technology off the ground. At the tail end of 2018, right before the holidays, some of the top players in CBRS met with FCC officials to talk about testing, ICDs, device certification and commercialization timelines. Companies represented in the meeting included vendors like Federated, Sony and CommScope but also big names like AT&T, Comcast and Charter. That's not a surprise considering AT&T wants to use the CBRS band for fixed wireless services, while Comcast and Charter continue to test both mobile and fixed services using CBRS.

At least, they hope to do so after the government is done with its testing.

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

Mike Dano 3/21/2019 | 4:51:06 PM
Update Just fyi, I updated this article slightly because one ESC might not necessarily talk to another ESC or a SAS from a different vendor, and because the US Navy radar systems that use the CBRS band are used by Navy airplanes, not ships.
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