wireless network

INDUSTRY INSIGHT

This year, cellular changes forever

Innovative steps taken by the Federal Communications Commission, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Department of Defense will bear fruit in 2019. Working together, these agencies set aside 150 MHz of wireless spectrum in the 3.5 GHz cellular band for new commercial services to share with the incumbent federal and non-federal services, rather than clearing the band and auctioning spectrum off to the highest bidder.

Additionally, new commercial services can operate in both exclusive-use or permissive-access allocations of spectrum -- thereby supporting a range of applications by many types of users. Citizen broadband radio service (CBRS) shared spectrum is a far-sighted and transformative decision that will likely change the course of wireless communications in the United States and beyond. 

CBRS allows organizations to deploy LTE cellular networks (sometimes called 4G), which is much like Wi-Fi that has unleashed so much innovation in the two decades since its introduction. Private LTE networks using CBRS spectrum offer government agencies total network control, greatly improved in-building connectivity and stronger security. They can be deployed and managed with simplicity, interoperability and costs more traditionally associated with the enterprise and carrier Wi-Fi markets.

Related to this, cellular and Wi-Fi technologies themselves are converging in important aspects, with each adopting and adapting characteristics of the other. For example, 5G is intended to be a small-cell solution for a wide variety of markets, traditionally hallmarks of Wi-Fi.  Conversely, the next generation of Wi-Fi (802.11ax) will incorporate airtime efficiency and power-saving features that have been available for some time in the cellular world.

Looking at the federal applications, military “smart bases” can tap into CBRS to add flexibility and performance while also preparing facilities for an expected avalanche of internet-of-things devices. Hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs could avail themselves of CBRS to protect critical wireless communications inside facilities. With CBRS the DOD could deploy a private wireless mobile network dedicated exclusively to the Pentagon building, improving phone coverage and security in the massive headquarters.

Sound too good to be true? I have the honor of serving as president of the CBRS Alliance, a group of more than 110 leading communications and technology companies working to make CBRS a reality. Since 2016, the CBRS Alliance has worked to support the commercial deployment of LTE solutions in the 3.5 GHz band. 2018 was a very productive year for the Alliance, and we’ve set the table for live deployments this year.

We witnessed a historic milestone on Nov. 2 when the FCC released a progress report to Congress on its work to open the 3.5 GHz band for CBRS services. Overall, it was a very encouraging report, and the FCC stated that it is “confident and excited” about the 3.5 GHz band and the use of dynamic techniques to enable spectrum sharing for incumbent, priority access and general authorized use.

The report also highlighted the unprecedented collaboration between the federal agencies, particularly DOD, and industry to reach this point. The FCC, NTIA, Institute for Telecommunication Sciences and DOD, along with the members of the CBRS Alliance and WinnForum, have come together to make the commercialization of the 3.5 GHz band a reality. The FCC noted that the “excellent” level of communication and cooperation that has taken place throughout the CBRS initiative played a key role in encouraging new investment and fostering new commercial usage of this spectrum.

Talks and proofs of concept are ongoing with several government agencies. Many are looking to the size, weight and power advantages offered by CBRS applications. The Navy is exploring how CBRS could take its existing remote recovery technology from a 50-pound device down to the size of a smartphone.

CBRS could also alleviate cybersecurity concerns around the accelerating number of IoT devices, since an organization can own and control all elements of the network: the spectrum itself, the radio area network, the end device and the identity/subscriber management. And agencies can do all this far more affordably than with traditional cellular wireless, since the CBRS networks can be built and managed in parallel with existing Wi-Fi infrastructure.

We live in a world in which spectrum is limited but data demand most certainly is not. The FCC recognized this fact of modern life when it made the 3.5 GHZ spectrum available. The agency should be applauded for opening the door to new services and applications through such an innovative spectrum policy. 

Private industry sees the opportunity clearly, similarly to how it viewed the transformative opportunities made possible by virtualization and cloud computing. The government has a history of late adoption of technology trends, such as with hardware virtualization. Effective communications are critical, and the government can’t afford to be reluctant to make an early adoption of this technological enhancement.

Wireless connectivity -- unlicensed, licensed, and shared -- is essential for maintaining this country’s technological edge as we enter the 5G era. CBRS is an onramp to a more widespread, affordable and secure wireless future. 2019 is the year that future begins.

About the Author

Dave Wright is director of regulatory affairs and network standards at Ruckus Networks and president of the CBRS Alliance.

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