The Critical Communications CBRS Opportunity
By Kristen Beckman
Tuesday, June 02, 2020 | Comments
Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum represents a major opportunity for utilities, oil and gas companies, and other entities that operate mission-critical communications networks. Recent initiatives that call for grid modernization and digitization are driving critical infrastructure industries (CII) to move beyond their legacy narrowband communications and advance to private broadband solutions.

The FCC started proceedings for the CBRS band in 2012, but momentum picked up when the commission finalized rules governing the band in late 2018 and began certifying equipment, software and CBRS devices (CBSDs) in 2019. The spectrum is available to both licensed and lightly licensed users for applications ranging from industrial internet of things (IoT) to fixed wireless access and networks. Lightly licensed licensees don’t have to go through a traditional coordination and licensing process.

CBRS for Critical Networks
Utilities, oil and gas companies, and other mission-critical companies are exploring two primary opportunities for using CBRS spectrum, said Srini Poosapati, director of product management at Federated Wireless, which developed its Spectrum Controller to manage shared access to CBRS spectrum and offers a cloud-based managed services option. The primary opportunity is operational efficiency.

“Smart grid initiatives are driving an uptick in IoT adoption within utilities, and there’s an increasing number of data devices that are required for efficient operation of their transmission and distribution systems,” Poosapati said. “These new smart grid technologies and applications require higher data throughputs that narrowband technologies don’t necessarily support.”

In addition, Poosapati said that many energy companies run multiple wireless networks — sometimes up to two dozen systems — to support their operations and crews. Consolidating several networks under a CBRS umbrella represents a significant opportunity to cut costs, he said.

Because CBRS supports 5G and LTE technology, the spectrum can enable a variety of use cases and applications currently handled on fiber and microwave links or public carrier networks. On the fixed data services front, CBRS can support and provide backhaul for advanced metering infrastructure, transmission line switches, transmission tower lights, environmental conditions monitoring, falling conductor protection systems, surveillance equipment, and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, Poosapati said. CBRS can also support mobility applications, including workers and maintenance crews in the field and their communications equipment, such as two-way radios and hardened tablets, as well as vehicle and asset tracking.

The other opportunity some utilities and energy companies are exploring is leveraging their existing subscriber bases and equipment to increase revenues. For example, a utility with smart meters installed on all of its subscribers’ homes might be interested in using CBRS to offer broadband connectivity to those households in addition to the basic utility services it already provides to tap into a new revenue stream, said Poosapati.

“It’s an exciting opportunity for companies to have their own network instead of having a carrier-branded network,” said Dan Barton, president and CEO of Alive Telecom, a communications equipment supplier whose clients include energy companies. “These guys will have their own branded network and with that, they will have opportunities to use it for as little or as much as they want. It’s a nice bandwidth that will support great data speeds and capacity.”

Band Characteristics
The CBRS band is often referred to as the “innovation band” because of its unique spectrum-sharing framework and the spectrum mediation process that will make it work. In addition, CBRS is expected to support many interesting and innovative use cases in the market.

The 150 megahertz of spectrum in the 3.5 GHz to 3.7 GHz band will be dynamically shared among three tiers of users: incumbents, priority access license (PAL) users and general authorized access (GAA) users. The band is used primarily by the U.S. Navy for radar communications, and other incumbents include fixed satellite stations. These incumbents will continue to have priority access over all other users. However, where the spectrum is unused or underused, the FCC will allow new licensed and lightly licensed entities to take advantage of the spectrum.

The heart of the spectrum-sharing model is the spectrum access system (SAS), which is an algorithm-enabled model that allows for dynamic spectrum allocation to happen on an opportunistic basis among the three tiers of users. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) developed the SAS model and modeled it to some extent on TV white spaces spectrum, which uses a centralized database management system to manage unlicensed devices, said Mark Gibson, director of business development at CommScope, which operates one of five FCC-certified SASs along with Federated Wireless, Amdocs, Google and Sony.

The SAS registers CBRS network equipment and authorizes it to use a specific block of generic spectrum based on input it receives from FCC databases, peer SASs and environmental sensing capability (ESC) networks that monitor for U.S. Navy radar operations in the spectrum. The SASs are designed to seamlessly and dynamically allocate spectrum to accommodate all tiers of users and protect them from interfering with each other, with priority access given based on the user’s tier.

Incumbent Impact
“One of the things that’s unique to this band is the presence of incumbents that aren’t going anywhere for the most part,” said Gibson.

U.S. Navy shipborne radar operations are protected in the CBRS band within 98 dynamic protection areas (DPAs) along both U.S. continental coasts where use of CBSDs is controlled by the SASs to avoid interference with radar operations.

“These DPAs are dimensioned to ensure that any sort of CBRS operation will not interfere with Navy radar on ships within those areas,” said Gibson. “For the most part, they are about 250 kilometers off the coast, and some of them extend inland a little.”

The influence of DPAs extend farther inland on the East Coast than the West Coast because of propagation characteristics and land formations, Gibson said. There are also inland DPAs that protect radar operations at military facilities, including the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency in McKinney, Texas; White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico; Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona; and Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California.

Incumbent fixed satellite systems primarily used for tracking, telemetry and control are protected within 150 kilometers of where CBRS operation may be permitted via a negotiated agreement with the existing operator.

Several existing wireless broadband operations, including some wireless internet service providers (ISPs) and private utility networks, are protected within grandfathered wireless protection zones (GWPZs). These grandfathered systems are not licensed indefinitely, however, and they could begin expiring this year, depending on how the FCC rules on waiver extension filings.

In addition, there are FCC quiet zones that CBRS operators will need to be aware of. These zones include Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia; Table Mountain in Colorado where the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) conducts quiet RF measurements; several FCC field offices; and Part 90 exclusion zones in Pensacola, Florida; Pascagoula, Mississippi; and St. Inigoes, Maryland.

There has been concern that the PAL spectrum is not free and clear because the Navy radar operates on the lower portion of the CBRS band where the PAL spectrum is located. However, the FCC allocated up to seven channels per county, leaving three free channels available as a safe harbor home for the PALs in case there is a radar activation.

“There’s enough spectrum out there that even in the scenario where there is some incumbent activity, the SAS should be able to move PAL operators to alternate channels,” said Poosapati. “It will depend on the specific use case and the minimum amount of bandwidth required, but 80 megahertz for GAA and 70 megahertz for PAL is a lot of spectrum. The probability is negligible that the entire gamut of spectrum will be taken over already by something else.”

Auction Details
The auction of the intermediate priority PAL licenses marks the first significant auction of mid-band spectrum in recent years, and there are high expectations for the value of the spectrum based on its usefulness for 5G applications, said Heather Moelter, an attorney in the communications practice group of law firm Davis Wright Tremaine. Not only does the spectrum provide favorable propagation characteristics, but 70 megahertz of spectrum will be available per county in 10-megahertz blocks in the form of PAL licenses.

“That’s going to make it possible for a wide number of users to get involved, not just larger entrants that can handle massive bids, but those who can get involved at the local and regional level in a highly tailored way,” Moelter said.

CBRS PAL licenses will be offered via FCC Auction 105, an ascending block round auction scheduled to begin July 23. Seven 10-megahertz channel blocks will be auctioned per county for a total of 22,631 available licenses. The licenses will have a 10-year renewable term and are subject to network buildout requirements. Bidders may acquire four channels per market.

Entities that are considering participating in the auction had to submit a short-form application, FCC Form 175, between April 23 and May 7. Applicants had to select the license areas for which they planned to bid in their short-form applications, said K.C. Halm, partner at Davis Wright Tremaine.

“You are not permitted to amend that list at a later date and time,” said Halm. “Just because you select a number of counties does not mean you are required to place bids on any or all of those selected counties, but if you don’t select them at this initial stage, you cannot at a later date add counties to that list.” Applicants could choose all counties if they want to take a broad view of entering the auction, but upfront payments will be required for each county June 19, so their potential financial exposure could be significant. Applicants will owe a deposit of 1 cent per megahertz pop with a minimum obligation of $500 per county, or roughly half the minimum opening bid, said Halm.

A quiet period began immediately after short-form applications were due, and the FCC will host optional online tutorials and a mock auction in the weeks leading up to the auction to educate bidders on the live bidding process.

Successful bidders will have to file a long-form application and ownership report, FCC Forms 601 and 602, 10 days after the FCC publishes the winners of the auction. The FCC is offering bidding credits in three categories: a 15% bidding credit for small business entities with annual gross revenues below $55 million the past three years; a credit of up to 25% for very small business entities with gross revenues less than $20 million for the past three years; and a rural service provider credit for entities serving less than 250,000 subscribers in primarily rural areas.

The Secondary Market
The FCC has allowed for a secondary market for the CBRS band with hopes that it will promote spectral efficiency, serve market demands and facilitate new entrants. Licenses can be partitioned and disaggregated and sold or leased through private-party transactions subject to FCC approval.

The secondary market is likely to be driven by the use-it-or-share-it principle built into the CBRS model. If a licensee, for example, acquires 40 megahertz of PAL spectrum in a particular county but only intends to serve half of the county, the spectrum for the other half of the county will be available to GAA users until the licensee establishes a PAL-protected area and builds out its network, said Halm.

“Unlike other traditional spectrum licenses that provided exclusivity, the use-it-or-share-it principle actually creates incentives for PAL licensees to sell portions of the license they may not otherwise use or lease portions of that license,” said Halm.

Licenses acquired in the secondary market remain subject to the original terms of the license, which means new owners must meet buildout obligations and other operational requirements. The FCC has adopted a light-touch leasing process for CBRS, which involves three or four steps intended to be completed quickly and allow lessors and lessees to consummate a spectrum lease transaction and hand over the spectrum relatively quickly.

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Kristen Beckman is community manager with the HetNet Forum, a membership body within the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA) dedicated to the development of the heterogeneous network (HetNet), a combination of distributed antenna system (DAS) solutions, small cell technologies, Wi-Fi infrastructure and emerging technologies working together. Email feedback to editor@

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