Verizon Slaking Mid-Band Spectrum Thirst With 3.5GHz CBRS Deployments

Mike Dano
6/4/2019
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For months, Verizon has been deploying antennas into its network that can support transmissions in the 3.5GHz CBRS band, several sources have told Light Reading. The company, for roughly a year, has been urging its handset suppliers to add 3.5GHz capabilities into their smartphones built for Verizon.

Although Verizon has long voiced interest in commercial operations in the 3.5GHz CBRS band, the operator's ongoing rollout of support for the spectrum band is noteworthy considering the FCC hasn't even yet given its final blessing to commercial operations in the band. Verizon's efforts are also important in light of ongoing concerns that the operator does not have enough so-called "mid-band" spectrum to keep pace with users' demands and, ultimately, to roll out 5G on a widespread basis.

Verizon's ongoing rollout of 3.5GHz equipment highlights the operator's expanding embrace of commercial operations in unlicensed spectrum -- a noteworthy development in a wireless industry built on operations in licensed spectrum bands. While Verizon could eventually move to obtain 3.5GHz spectrum licenses, its initial deployments in the CBRS band are occurring well before the FCC plans to auction 3.5GHz spectrum licenses. Thus, Verizon's CBRS rollout -- coupled with its simultaneous ongoing rollout of License Assisted Access (LAA) technology in the unlicensed 5GHz band -- clearly reflect the carrier's growing penchant for adding capacity to its network by using "free" unlicensed spectrum traditionally used by the likes of WiFi and Bluetooth.

Verizon's CBRS romance
Verizon first signaled its interest in the 3.5GHz CBRS band during the Mobile World Congress trade show in 2017. Ed Chan -- now one of Verizon's top network executives -- said CBRS could power a number of business models including both private and commercial mobile networks. And then last year Verizon issued a press release about its ongoing CBRS testing with Federated Wireless, Google, Nokia and Qualcomm.

Since then Verizon executives have routinely said the operator is interested in using the 3.5GHz for outdoor and indoor small cells. Indeed, just last month the operator embarked on new outdoor and indoor CBRS tests, according to filings with the FCC.

But the fact that Verizon is already deploying CBRS antennas into its network, and is already selling several CBRS-capable phones including the Pixel 3 and the Samsung Galaxy S10, shows that Verizon is keen to put the band to commercial use much more quickly than expected.

Already, according to some new Verizon cell tower applications, the operator is now specifically noting support for the 3.5GHz band:

Verizon Antenna Application With CBRS
Some of Verizon's antenna applications note the use of the CBRS band.
Some of Verizon's antenna applications note the use of the CBRS band.

In response to questions from Light Reading, a Verizon spokesperson said that "while we wait for the FCC to complete their testing and authorization work, we have not been sitting still," and added that Verizon is working with its handset manufacturers to add CBRS capabilities into its devices. "When the FCC gives final approval we will be ready to make that service available to our customers," the spokesperson said.

Verizon and a wide range of other companies are waiting for the FCC and NTIA to give final approval for initial commercial deployments in the CBRS 3.5GHz band. Those approvals are expected in the next few weeks. After monitoring the initial deployments, the FCC is expected to sign off on broad, unlicensed commercial use of the 3.5GHz band in the third quarter.

Then, in 2020, the FCC is expected to conduct auctions of 3.5GHz licenses.

Why this matters
Verizon, like most wireless carriers, wants to add more spectrum to its network to keep pace with increasing user traffic. But instead of spending billions of dollars buying spectrum from someone like Dish Network, or buying it at a government auction, Verizon increasingly is using unlicensed spectrum. Such spectrum is free to use but can become crowded.

Verizon first hinted at its unlicensed aspirations in its support for the LTE-U standard roughly five years ago. That standard was designed to allow cellular operators to expand LTE transmissions from licensed spectrum bands and into the 5GHz unlicensed band. Although the similar LAA standard eventually replaced the LTE-U standard, the result is the same: Operators like Verizon can add more capacity to their networks by basically pushing LTE transmissions into unlicensed spectrum bands alongside their existing, licensed spectrum bands. AT&T and T-Mobile are also deploying LAA.

Verizon may employ the same strategy in the 3.5GHz CBRS band. And the reason Verizon is moving so fast to do so is probably to add capacity to its network quickly. As noted by the Wall Street analysts at Wells Fargo, Verizon sits well behind AT&T in terms of overall mid-band spectrum ownership:

Verizon's Spectrum Holdings
Verizon doesn't own as much mid-band spectrum as some of its competitors.
Verizon doesn't own as much mid-band spectrum as some of its competitors.

Although Verizon owns significant amounts of so-called millimeter-wave (mmWave) spectrum, it owns just slightly more mid-band spectrum than T-Mobile does -- although Verizon counts almost twice as many mobile customers.

Thus, Verizon may well be looking for ways to improve its network capacity with unlicensed spectrum like the 3.5GHz band while it waits for the FCC to release more mid-band spectrum like the C Band.

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

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