CBRS Could Help Close Urban and Rural Coverage Gaps

Commercial deployments of Citizens Broadband Radio System (CBRS) networks are ramping up, and the technology is set to get an additional boost this month when the Federal Communications Commission auctions off Priority Access Licenses (PAL). Excitement is high, but what are the realities of deploying in the band and its potential for reaching underserved markets?

CBRS use cases range from the Internet of Things (IoT) and venue connectivity, to enterprise and hospitality communications and fixed wireless services in rural areas. The realities of COVID-19 and the increasingly pressing need for connectivity in underserved areas as more and more people work from home have shined an even bigger spotlight on the potential for CBRS to fill in coverage gaps.

Panelists at a Connect (X) All Access virtual event discussed the benefits and challenges of the CBRS band, the roll of non-carrier CBRS network operators, deployment considerations and emerging use cases. The session, “Connecting the Rest: Shared Networks & CBRS for Improved Rural Connectivity” was moderated by Tim Downs, Executive Producer, Wireless Infrastructure Association, and included insights from Mark Gibson, Sr. Director, CommScope; Elizabeth Bowles, President & Chairman, Internet Service provider and fixed wireless provider Aristotle.net; Jim Jacobellis, VP of Partners and Business Development, Geoverse; and Tormod Larsen, CTO, ExteNet Systems.

To view this panel in its entirety as well as other content on demand, visit https://connectxallaccess.vfairs.com/.

The panelists praised the beneficial characteristics of the CBRS band, including LTE capabilities, propagation, throughput and reach, low latency, better security and improved mobility as well as its accessibility through both general access and PAL availability, which should make it widely available to a variety of users including municipalities, schools, and enterprises along with wireless ISPs, cable companies and traditional operators.

“The interesting thing from an infrastructure perspective is that you can accommodate all of these use cases just within the private LTE realm,” said Larsen, who noted non-service provider CBRS users are likely to focus on the applications CBRS can enable rather than the network technology. “There are a number of entities that could leverage that same network for their connectivity needs. If you think about a building, for example, you could have companies that have building management applications that could be run over this network and not interfere with the tenants’ Wi-Fi network. It could be cloud providers that have opportunities and needs to have better connectivity. It could be even for the digital signage in that building. And the same thing goes for municipalities.”

With non-provider entities potentially using CBRS spectrum, the panelists weighed in on whether the process to deploy a CBRS network is plug and play or complex.

“I don’t think it’s plug and play just yet,” said Gibson. “The complexity of rolling out a network with CBRS is akin to rolling out an LTE network. The additional complexity is one, you have to have a SAS, and the other is that for the most part the devices need this thing called certified professional installation. Somebody at least has to put eyes on the device and confirm that it’s been installed pursuant to a set of guidelines. That’s one thing that keeps it from being exactly plug and play so you can’t really roll up a box and have people deploy it themselves.”

“There are varying levels of complexity with CBRS depending on the use case and ironically fixed wireless is one of the simplest use cases,” said Jacobellis. “But as you get into enabling VoLTE, enabling emergency services, enabling a network that isn’t just a little bubble but could accommodate roaming in and out, then it is very difficult for that to be plug and play. If you are a single site and you just want to do a little bubble coverage, it’s pretty close to plug and play but if you ever want to get beyond that I would recommend working with a technical partner that could help you through all the stuff that we are mentioning like SAS and things like that.”

The panelists mentioned a variety of CBRS use cases, including industrial IoT, autonomous manufacturing, tracking goods and devices, private LTE in the commercial real-estate space, backhaul of data in health-care facilities, entertainment and sports applications (such as pulling sensor data from NASCAR cars for pit crews), remotely piloting vehicles at ports and many more. With new COVID-19 policies in place, enterprises might see a need for wireless coverage for facial recognition, temperature scanners, touchless access, crowd control and digital signage.

Bowles pointed to precision agriculture applications as a prime potential use case for CBRS.

“It enables you to get down to a square inch the amount of fertilizer that’s needed or hydroponics when you are looking at fish farms, and the data you can get out of the water and then transmit,” she said. “One of the biggest barriers to the proliferation of precision agriculture is that spectrum isn’t adequate for what they need to do when they start uploading the data and try to talk back and forth between the devices. The equipment is there, the sensors are there, but the spectrum has not been on par with what they are going to need and that is an application that CBRS is going to help.”

Bowles encouraged WISPs and other service providers to be open minded about CBRS and focus on providing the coverage and capacity end users need rather than getting caught up in technology loyalties.

“I think for operators, we have to recognize that there is no one solution,” said Bowles of the potential for CBRS. “There are operators who like fiber at all costs, and I have to say that’s great if you are a fiber provider, but it’s going to take years to get fiber to every single man, woman and child in the United States. CBRS allows for more rapid deployment, even if you deploy that network first with the idea of underlaying it with fiber. It’s a place to start.”

Bowles noted that rural markets aren’t the only areas where coverage gaps exist.

“This is talked about as a rural solution but in fact there are issues in urban areas too,” said Bowles. “There are 50,000 unserved people in the city of San Jose. When you start looking at these urban pockets where you don’t have service, technologies like CBRS can do a lot to help get services to people in a cost-effective way.”

See related:

Rural America: How Wireless Technologies Could Impact America’s Heartland

Unleashing the Economic Benefits of Mobile Broadband

Focus on Innovation takes Altareos to the Skies in Search of Rural Broadband Connectivity Solution

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Opportunity is the Name of the Game as CBRS Comes to Market