The government shutdown is already the longest on record, and there's no end in sight. And that situation is starting to make some players in the wireless industry -- particularly those in the 3.5GHz CBRS space -- a little nervous.
After all, those in the CBRS industry had hoped to begin launching commercial 3.5GHz services in the first few months of 2019 -- but those launches are contingent on getting a few final approvals from federal regulators who are currently not working or getting paid.
"The shutdown is unfortunate not only because of the delays it may cause in the highly anticipated commercialization of shared spectrum, but also because of the financial impact further delays would have on a variety of wireless ecosystem players," wrote Iyad Tarazi, CEO at Federated Wireless , a company focused on spectrum sharing in the CBRS band, in response to questions from Light Reading. Tarazi pointed out that Federated is still hoping to deploy 3.5GHz CBRS services for 15 customers across nearly 16,000 sites in the United States in the first quarter of this year, a goal that could be delayed due to the shutdown. "Everyone has worked so hard to get to this point, including the staff of the FCC, ITS and NTIA, it's a real shame to see this delay caused by something that none of us can control."
Dave Wright, president of the CBRS Alliance , a trade group focusing on technologies in the 3.5GHz space, including LTE, explained exactly how the shutdown is impacting the CBRS sector. First, he pointed out that the FCC isn't providing equipment authorizations during the shutdown. As the federal agency in charge of the nation's spectrum, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also signs off on any device -- be it a smartphone or CBRS access point -- that makes use of those airwaves. (See Sierra Wireless Has First CBRS Module Approved by FCC and Ruckus Networks Scores CBRS Certification.)
"The suspension of equipment authorizations by the FCC is an issue for anyone trying to get Part 96 (CBRS) infrastructure or client devices approved for the band," Wright wrote in response to questions from Light Reading. "There is a related concern that the longer the shutdown lasts, the larger the backlog of pending grants that will need to be cleared when full operations resume."
The Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) trade association recently complained about this same issue, arguing that it could affect the rollout of 5G network technology in the United States. To address the problem, TIA urged the FCC to institute a 30-day review period after the end of the shutdown to speed up authorizations. And to prevent similar situations in the future, TIA argued that the FCC should discontinue reviews of devices that present "limited risk," and that it should start accepting automatic certifications by more accredited third-party testing labs.
(However, a representative from a Washington, DC, trade group told Light Reading that vendors often file for FCC authorizations early on in their production cycle. The representative, who asked not to be named, said that the delay on the FCC's equipment certification program likely will have little effect on most products -- unless the shutdown lasts beyond several months.)
SAS and ESC testing
Aside from the device-authorization issue, the CBRS industry is also at the mercy of the NTIA's Institute for Telecommunications Sciences (ITS). That's the Boulder, Colorado-based testing agency that's charged with giving the OK to the CBRS industry's Spectrum Access System (SAS) and Environmental Sensing Capability (ESC) operations.
The SAS and ESC are crucial elements in the shared-spectrum paradigm that makes the CBRS 3.5GHz band work. The ESC is used to see whether US Navy radar systems -- which have been operating in the spectrum for years -- are currently using the 3.5GHz band. If they are using the band, the ESC then tells SAS vendors like Federated Wireless about the situation, so that those vendors can move around actual users in the CBRS band to prevent them from interfering with US Navy operations.
Thus, NTIA testing of the system is critical to ensure that military operations aren't affected. But it's also important because wireless players across the globe are closely watching how the United States implements shared-spectrum technology. The 3.5GHz band in the United States is a first-in-the-world system for sharing spectrum between commercial and government users, and if it is successful it could be replicated across the globe. Already AT&T, Samsung, Verizon and others have promised to launch CBRS systems. (See 2019: Samsung Gets Busy With 5G in US.)
"Things had been progressing quite well, with ITS having completed lab testing of ESC sensors in mid-December and issuing draft test reports to the ESC Operator applicants just before the shutdown," the CBRS Alliance's Wright wrote. "Similarly, SAS lab testing was moving along nicely, but has now come to a halt during the shutdown. We didn’t lose any time over the holidays since testing and other approval related activities were not expected during those two weeks, but as of Jan. 7th the shutdown is now directly impacting the SAS and ESC approval timelines."
And all of this already represents a bit of a delay from initial CBRS rollout forecasts. For example, Federated's fellow SAS provider CommScope had hoped to have testing completed as early as the third quarter of 2018, with commercial launches by the end of last year. (See Unlicensed CBRS 4G Service Coming Q4 2018.)
Wider shutdown problems
The CBRS industry isn't the only sector of the wireless communications market worrying about the shutdown. For example, the Wireless Industry Association, the trade group that represents the nation's tower and network installation companies, told Inside Towers that the shutdown means that the FCC cannot review new or modified structures in its Antenna Structure Registration System. The same goes for the FAA’s Obstruction Evaluation Group.
Similarly, a representative from one fixed wireless network operator told Light Reading that the shutdown is affecting the company's ability to obtain necessary approvals to install its network equipment on top of buildings owned by the government's Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The representative from the operator, who asked not to be named, added that the FCC also is not issuing approvals or renewals for spectrum licenses. In anticipation of this problem, the representative said the operator filed for a number of high-band spectrum licenses for backhaul connections shortly before the government shutdown.
Otherwise, the representative said, there hasn't been much effect on the operator from the shutdown.
More broadly though, the shutdown is delaying a number of important proceedings in front of the FCC, including rulings on the allocation of C Band and EBS spectrum, as well as the agency's review of the proposed merger between Sprint and T-Mobile. (See Darkness Gathers Over T-Mobile/Sprint Merger.)
(The FCC's ongoing 28GHz spectrum auction, dubbed Auction 101, is funded through a separate mechanism and therefore remains up and running. The auction has raised almost $700 million in bids so far.) (See FCC 28GHz 5G Auction Is at $697.4M, but 5G Trial Problems Emerge.)
It's worth noting that a number of major wireless companies and trade groups -- including the CTIA wireless industry trade group and the CCA trade group that represents the nation's smaller and regional wireless network operators -- declined to comment on the ongoing government shutdown. That's likely a calculated move given the heated rhetoric between Republicans who control the Senate and Democrats gaining control of the House.
Indeed, the only public comments on the topic from the likes of Sprint, C Spire and Verizon is to detail their willingness to waive late fees and agent assist fees for federal government employees directly impacted by the shutdown.