by Martha DeGrasse
One of the biggest questions for the U.S. wireless industry in the year ahead is how the Federal Communications Commission will allocate the 3550-3700 MHz spectrum, and President Trump's National Security Strategy may offer a clue about what the Republican-controlled commission will decide to do.
Large wireless service providers want the FCC to auction this spectrum, called Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), by creating 10-year, renewable licenses covering partial economic areas (PALs). They say this will create an economic environment that will support investment in 5G radio equipment for CBRS small cells.
President Trump's National Security Strategy, signed late last month, calls for a national "secure 5G Internet capability.” This suggests federal support for the allocation of spectrum for 5G.
In Europe, mobile network operators are preparing to use the 3.5 GHz bands for 5G, and Asian operators are also expected to use these bands for 5G. But in the U.S., mobile network operators are worried that they will not have easy access to large allocations of 3.5 GHz spectrum.
Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile US and Sprint are at odds with the smaller carriers, who want licenses covering smaller census tracts. They also want shorter time periods for the licenses so that they will sell at lower price points. These carriers are unlikely to deploy 5G in the near future, and are more likely to use the new spectrum for LTE. They are joined by some of the largest companies in the U.S., who would like to buy small-area licenses in order to deploy their own corporate LTE networks.
GE has already demonstrated a private LTE network in the 3.5 GHz band, and is also testing airborne 3.5 GHz radios. The company wants to use its LTE network to support industrial internet of things applications.
The battle over how the FCC will auction the 3.5 GHz bands could end up with large manufacturing companies on one side and nationwide wireless carriers on the other. If the commissioners look to the White House for guidance, they could consider the President's longstanding support for U.S. manufacturing, but they are perhaps more likely to consider his stated goal of a national 5G network. If carriers in other countries are deploying 5G in the 3.5 GHz bands, the FCC may feel pressure to help U.S. carriers do the same.
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Mobile network operators, cable network operators, fixed wireless providers, neutral host providers and even private companies are all expected to be buyers of CBRS small cells, depending on how the spectrum auctions play out.
Whatever the FCC decides on these above issues will not only affect the potential auction prices, but may also impact (to a greater or lesser extent) what types of entities (carriers, private businesses, school districts, etc.) are able to enter the auction and have a hope of winning licenses.
The latest CBRS market study from iGR Research provides an explanation of how the CBRS licensing scheme works and how the technical elements of the new band work. This report includes a forecast of the total number of CBRS nodes expected to be deployed in the U.S. through 2022. The forecasted number of nodes is categorized by Outdoor WISP, Outdoor nonWISP, Inside Commercial, and Inside Residential.