Wireless spectrum is a precious commodity for which carriers have paid top dollar. While some of that spectrum is being used today to power 4G/LTE services, even faster, low-latency 5G technology is the next big thing on the horizon.
With the options now limited with respect to licensed spectrum, both incumbent mobile carriers and cable operators are casting their gaze on a 150 Megahertz-wide swath of what will become shared-use spectrum. It’s a band that is opening up new opportunities.
That band, called Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), lives in 3.55 Gigahertz to 3.7 GHz. It’s been an underutilized asset (the U.S. Navy taps into it for flight operations for aircraft carriers, for example), but will soon be opened up to a broader range of use cases. A key use case among them: enhancing services that currently use licensed spectrum.
Could Aid Cable Plans
While that’s handy for traditional mobile service carriers, it will also be useful to cable operators looking for wireless data options that can complement their MVNO agreements and offset (or at least lower) some of the network costs associated with mobile service.
A key piece of technology that will make this shared spectrum model possible is a spectrum controller that ensures that new apps and use cases do not interfere with incumbents that are also using the CBRS band.
A startup that’s entirely focused on this new product area is Federated Wireless, a company that entered business in 2014. Federated Wireless has already raised $76 million, with Charter Communications, Arris (which closed its acquisition of Ruckus Wireless on Dec. 1) and American Tower (a holder of building access and towers) among its financial backers.
The shared spectrum approach with the CBRS band is emerging as WiFi becomes overused and licensed spectrum remains affordable only to a small number of players and offers a “third model,” Federated CEO Iyad Tarazi said, estimating that 95% of the CBRS band is open or underutilized.
Related: CBRS Spectrum to Open Windows of Opportunity for Cable Ops
Federated Wireless’s spectrum controller includes real-time performance management tools that reside in the cloud and track all of the CBRS access points on the network, teamed with specialized algorithms and optimization techniques. The company will sell its platform as a managed service and charge per access point. But the model would also enable partners to launch their own services in the CBRS spectrum.
Tarazi likens this to a coordinated, national controller for WiFi, though CBRS will be using Long Term Evolution (LTE)-based technology to deliver the signals. The system also includes a protection network made up of sensors to protect the Navy and other incumbent users from new entrants that will also be using the band. Those incumbents likewise have priority access in the band.
In addition to incumbent usage, CBRS will also support nonincumbent priority access, and general authorized access, with at least 80 MHz of spectrum always available for the latter case. Any spectrum that is not sold for priority access will go back into the general access pool.
Tarazi also estimated that more than 31 radio suppliers are integrating Federated Wireless’s technology through an open interface. Major mobile and wireless vendors already on board include Nokia, Samsung and Ericsson.
Following a beta period that ran for about 18 months, Federated Wireless launched its first commercial product in September. It’s been releasing components of the product in phases, in software, and expects to have them all out by the end of the year.
Trials in multiple locations — both for indoor and outdoor applications — are ongoing. Among them, Charter and Verizon are already working with Federated Wireless on some outdoor trials. Tarazi estimated that the company has 15 or so “large” trials in planning or in deployment today.
Tests Continue With Launch Set in Q2
Under Federated Wireless’s current plan, it expects local field testing to continue through the end of 2017 and select market launches to get underway by first-quarter 2018, with a full-market launch following in Q2.
Several operators and vendors in the cable realm are also part of the CRBS Alliance. Examples include Intel, Ruckus Wireless, Ericsson, Comcast, CableLabs, Casa Systems, Charter Communications, Cox Communications, CommScope, Cisco Systems, Samsung and Technicolor.
Mobile carriers are “very active” today with respect to testing CBRS technology, particularly for network densification, Tarazi said. He noted that cable operators would likely take longer as some move ahead and initiate their own MVNO deals and launch mobile services.
Though Federated Wireless is positioned as a leader in this emerging sector, it won’t be alone for long. Google, for example, is developing a similar capability, and others are expected to jump in and chase the opportunity.
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