CTIA report on CBRS ignites firestorm of criticism

A new report commissioned by the CTIA trade association has drawn fire from a wide range of industry executives, government officials, lobbyists and others. The report asserts that spectrum in the 3.5GHz CBRS band remains mostly unused several years after it was released for commercial operations.

Responses to the study quickly ensued. "CBRS is used extensively by WISPs throughout America, connecting the unserved. The sharing model works, period. In a spectrum-constrained world, we need more sharing, not less," tweeted the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association.

"CTIA does not like any form of spectrum but exclusive use clear and auction (i.e., what its member use)," tweeted Harold Feld of public-interest group Public Knowledge. "CTIA routinely comes up with 'reports' to persuade Congress to give them all the spectrum. #CBRS report is of similar caliber (i.e., silly)."

And the NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, a trade association that primarily represents the nation's big cable companies, acknowledged that it's still early days for the CBRS industry. But the association argued that the sector is already showing significant signs of growth.

"The study released today by CTIA and Recon Analysis about CBRS overlooks the value of shared spectrum and its ability not only to meet consumer needs, but also enable new and diverse users," NCTA wrote in a statement. "A zero-sum, exclusive-licensed-only strategy is not a solution. There are many creative ways to approach the spectrum crunch, and the CBRS model offers a compelling and innovative basis for doing so."

'A dearth of innovative use cases'

CTIA on Monday released a 10-page report authored by Recon Analytics, a research and consulting firm headed by longtime industry analyst Roger Entner.

"A review of today's CBRS marketplace shows that CBRS does not live up to the hype as the foundation of innovation and should not be a model for future spectrum policy," Entner said in a CTIA press release touting the new report. "Real-world studies show low utilization, low market demand, and a dearth of innovative use cases."

 (Source: gualtiero boffi / Alamy Stock Photo)

(Source: gualtiero boffi / Alamy Stock Photo)

In the report, Recon Analytics cites a CTIA spectrum-usage study conducted in 2021 across a number of big US cities. The study found just a handful of commercial operations in the CBRS band. "The metrics we have indicate CBRS is greatly underutilized. Licensed spectrum, by contrast, has been shown to be increasingly well utilized," according to the Recon Analytics report.

The report also argues that most CBRS spectrum owners – such as Verizon, Dish Network and Charter Communications – plan to use the spectrum for traditional mobile wireless or fixed wireless purposes. As for unlicensed CBRS users, the report argues that most deployments so far are "indistinguishable from Wi-Fi deployments." And that, according to the report, indicates that the band doesn't need to be shared among licensed and unlicensed users, and that the spectrum would be better regulated through established frameworks that clearly separate licensed and unlicensed users.

"There is no evidence at this time that CBRS sharing is a model to emulate," the report concludes.

Making history

The FCC opened up the CBRS band for unlicensed commercial operations in 2019, after years of work among policy makers. However, the US Navy is still permitted to use the band around some US coastlines under a unique spectrum-sharing model.

Then, in 2020, the FCC released roughly half of the band – 75 MHz – for licensed operations in an auction that raised $4.6 billion in bids. Under the band's sharing scenario, unlicensed users can make use of the full 150MHz in the band, but only if there are no licensed operations in that location.

Sharing in the band is handled by a network of sensors and companies like Federated Wireless that manage a Spectrum Access System (SAS) database.

"The CBRS band has seen faster, more widespread deployment, by a wider and more diverse range of users, than any other spectrum policy change in telecom history," a Federated Wireless representative argued in an email to Light Reading shortly after the release of the CTIA's new report Monday. The company also noted that there are now more than 285,000 sites around the country that are broadcasting CBRS signals.

A looming battle

According to Michael Calabrese of the New America public policy think tank, CTIA's new report is designed to influence the development of legislation in Congress. Specifically, the Senate is debating how it might release spectrum between 3.1GHz and 3.45GHz for commercial uses. The US wireless industry – fronted by its main trade association, the CTIA – has loudly argued that spectrum be released purely for licensed uses. Others, though, are pushing for a CBRS-style framework that could allow licensed, unlicensed and federal users to share the band.

"The CTIA game plan to engineer a mobile industry monopoly over spectrum access through exclusive-use auctions is a very real threat to consumers and US competitiveness when it comes to affordable connectivity solutions," Calabrese argued in a statement.

The US military – which currently uses the 3.1GHz-3.45GHz band for radar – has rejected any suggestion that it would completely release the band for licensed uses.

"For us to have to vacate this [3.1GHz-3.45GHz] part of the spectrum would be untenable," John Sherman, the chief information officer for the US Department of Defense (DoD), said in September. He said it would take decades and hundreds of billions of dollars to shift US military radar out of that band.

But he suggested that "we can make sharing work."

And the DoD still appears keen to implement some kind of CBRS-style sharing scenario in the lower 3GHz band.

"More work lies ahead, but the results of CBRS so far are promising, and those involved in its success so far should be proud. The DoD, other federal spectrum users, and industry continue to look for new use cases along with ways to improve the existing CBRS system," wrote Vernita Harris, the director of the DoD's CIO Electromagnetic Spectrum Enterprise Policies and Programs (EMSEPP), on LinkedIn Monday. Harris has spoken out on the topic in the past.

"DoD believes the nation that masters spectrum sharing among all users will gain huge technological, economical, and strategic advantage over competitors in the commercial and national security arenas," Harris concluded. "DoD remains committed to engaging in a whole-of-nation approach to spectrum sharing to ensure not only our economic prosperity, but also our public safety, nation defense and general welfare."

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

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