CBRS Gives Bandwidth a Boost

January 26, 2022

With wireless devices becoming more accessible to the population, there is an innate struggle for providers to keep up with bandwidth demand. We have so many wireless devices like cell phones, computers, and a host of IoT applications, that each signal is beginning  to “jam” up, which results in slow speeds, crashed signals, and dropped calls.  

Imagine if every car on the interstate had to pass through a one lane highway. In this example, the cars are wireless devices and the highway is bandwidth.   As the system becomes overwhelmed, access to the internet gets more and more difficult.

I know what you’re thinking. The world will end as we know it without easy access to the internet. Well, the government has offered a new solution for us, and it’s called the Citizens Broadband Radio Spectrum (CBRS).

In our last newsletter’s lead article, we discussed the various solutions that are available for wireless connectivity for phones, laptops,  other mobile devices, plus a voluminous number of applications.  For this article we are focusing on CBRS.

So what is CBRS ?

CBRS is a 3.5 GHz spectrum and is a band of important radio frequencies that fall within the mid-band spectrum range. This mid-band is the most desirable range because it has faster speeds than the low-band (up to 1GHz), and it has greater geographical range than the high-band spectrum range (mmWave).  

This means that CBRS will carry your device signal further and faster than what’s been available to us before.  Also relevant is that this is “new” bandwidth, previously unavailable for public use.

The 3.5 GHz spectrum was originally reserved for strict military use, but the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided to auction off portions of the spectrum to commercial entities. This portion is around 3.55 GHz to 3.7 GHz range and is now dedicated for use by the public.

How is CBRS being Implemented?

There are three tiers to CBRS. 

  • Tier One is restricted to military usage - protected access for the incumbent user of this spectrum.

  • Tier Two is Priority Access License (PAL) is reserved for corporations that purchase a license to use the bandwidth. 

  • Tier Three is General Authorized Access (GAA) non-licensed usage that can be  considered free of charge  “leftovers” for the general population.

The only way Tier Three gets to use the bandwidth is if neither the Incumbent level (Tier One) or  the PAL level (Tier Two) are not using it at any given time. 

Consider this like a swimming pool. A lot of activity happens here. Swim practices, swim meets, diving practices, diving  competitions, and general swimmers all use the pool.  The general swimmers are Tier Three. They can swim and play in the pool and have a great time when there’s nothing  scheduled.  But when  practices, meets and competitions are scheduled, Tier Three swimmers cannot use the pool.  

The swim meets and swim practices are Tier One. The whole pool has to be emptied so the swimmers can swim from one end of the pool to the other without interference. They control the entirety of the pool and can use it for whatever they need to while they’re there.

Diving practice is Tier Two.  They are restricted only by the Tier One activity.  Their activity doesn't shut down the whole pool but it does restrict access to one end of the pool.

How do Companies get their Tier 2 Status ? 

The simple answer is by auction. 

 Who was at the auction? Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T, Charter, Comcast, Dish Network, Cable One, Centurylink, Cincinnati Bell, Frontier, Mediacom, U.S. Cellular, and Windstream were among the companies vying for a shot at the 22,631 Priority Access License (PALs) available at the auction.

A PAL is a ten-year renewable license and is limited to no more than four PALs per license area.  The collective ten year licenses sold at the first FCC auction garnered over $4.5 billion for 4.05% of the total accessible 3.5GHz bandwidth.

The FCC auction leased access to Tier Two in the summer of 2020 where they sold more than $4.58 billion worth of priority access to the CBRS. 

How will I experience CBRS in my everyday life?

 A Tier Two PAL may be any number of entities with an interest in protected bandwidth such as signal providers, large corporations, universities, etc. These entities can create “express lanes” by creating Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks for wireless devices. This network can extend into 5G to create faster speeds.  This means that people who are a part of these entities (either customers, employees, students) can connect their device and take advantage of the CBRS that’s being used.

Who is managing the traffic ?

Welcome to the Spectrum Access System (SAS). This is a cloud-based service that manages a wireless device’s communication as they are transmitting in the CBRS band. This means that when a phone sends out a signal, SAS picks it up and transmits it to another cell phone. 

The reason for SAS picking up the signal first?

So it can prevent people hacking into the system, and bypassing protocols set for the 3 tiered shared access system.  This short video from the OnGo Alliance provides an overview.

Do you remember the oil pipeline hack a few years back when a foreign hacker tapped into an oil pipeline and nearly ablated the gas supply for the entire US east coast?   SAS  provides another protective layer against a hack like that to help prevent hackers from making front page news.

All this to say, SAS and CBRS work hand in hand to make sure the (military)  incumbent level remains safe and protected, the PALs will have  secure guaranteed bandwidth  while we can all read the morning news, watch a YouTube  or sneak in a cat video (don’t worry, we all do it.)

How Will this Affect Daily Life?

CBRS provides many benefits, one of which is its access to 5G.

Are WiFi and CBRS competing?  

The correct answer may be yes… and no.

Yes… they are each providing access to the internet and you/we will access only one of them at a time.  So, perhaps you can say they will compete to provide access.   

No… because many licensed businesses can create LTE WiFi networks while CBRS is regulated and licensed.  The WiFi networks essentially offer their customers closed 5G access.   Conversely current thinking expects that CBRS will become a Radio Access Network (RAN) for 5G services.  For now, it is fair to consider them partners in progress helping each other get you your signal faster and stronger.  

And they both offer 5G access, a  wireless technology that provides faster download speeds, can process high volumes of data messages with little delay, has increased availability, and improved network efficiency.

Basically, it’s everything a tech geek could want. You’ll get your news, talk to your friends, and, of course, watch those cat videos at faster speeds than ever before.   Consider...

  • There were 225 million 5G subscribers in the first year it was launched.
  • By 2026, it’s estimated that there will be 3.5 billion subscribers.
  • This is an unprecedented 57% annual growth rate from 2021 to 2026. 

There’s no other technology that offers as much mobility as 5G. It’s available in your car, house, business, and even in that dark little alley everyone avoids. It’s everywhere and being everywhere makes it more valuable than we can put into words.

Does CBRS reach Everywhere?

Researchers actually put this question to the test in Denver, CO, Tampa, FL, Coldwater, MI, and Lexington, KY. The answer?  
No, CBRS cannot reach everywhere.  In areas of high foliage and mountains, CBRS was unable to reach and provide coverage for everyone. 

CBRS may be able to reach a good portion of the United States, but it’s important to note that it’s not a cure-all for the connectivity challenges people face every day. That’s why it’s important to incorporate a good balance of old and new. That way more people get their signals connected, and more people get to keep watching those cat videos.

The solution to these challenges?  WiFi, a.k.a. old faithful.  A more complete answer is WiFi 6.

Wi-Fi 6 is the next generation of Wi-Fi connecting you to the internet, just with new additional technologies to make that happen more efficiently, speeding up connections in the process.  

This might be worthy of a separate article but suffice it to say that there are many benefits to WiFi 6.

With regard to this article,  WiFi 6 will provide internet access to homes and small businesses in areas that do not have access to CBRS.   Also relevant is that other than a lack of access in remote regions, CBRS costs are relatively expensive upfront versus WiFi.  If you are not a corporation, that cost can be  prohibitive. That’s why WiFi will remain a great choice for many people, especially in their homes.

And for the geeks among us, WiFi 6 also has increased access point capacity, greater channel width, more efficient bandwidth sharing, WiFi sleeping, and backwards compatibility. 

This all means that you’ll be able to connect more devices and have faster speeds at your workplace and in the various locations that you live, play and relax.

What impact will CBRS have on The Distributed Antenna System (DAS)

DAS is a system of antennae nodes that are connected to a common source and provides wireless connectivity within a geographic area. These antennae are providing people with boosted wireless access for their devices.

DAS can boost a signal throughout a building  or accross a campus for cellular devices and to provide access to WiFi. This solution has evolved over 20 years from an expensive antenna on the roof available for only very large venues to the current versions which provide DAS coverage in far smaller buildings whether they are used as corporate offices, hospitals, classrooms, or multi-family residences.

So what’s the issue?  
As is often the case, the primary issue is cost.  

DAS requires its own infrastructure built for a building or campus which includes cabling, antenna nodes, and a public carrier infrastructure.  This is to boost the native signal in a specific building or across a campus.

Now, there is no need to boost the native signal for the users of CBRS.   The signal is licensed.

Change is likely coming with regard to DAS solutions now that CBRS has entered the discussion as an available alternate solution.  We will have to wait to see what that change looks like.

Where do we go from here? 

It may come as a surprise to learn that there’s just not an infinite amount of available bandwidth floating in the air. For perspective:

It was reported in Oct. 2011 that there were more wireless devices in the U.S. than there were people. A quick Google search says there were 329.5 million people living in the U.S.  in 2020.

That is a lot of devices out there trying to use our limited bandwidth.   CBRS is the latest solution offered, adding available bandwidth for the citizen population along with a system to manage that bandwidth.  Along with other advances (WiFi 6), providers of bandwidth have yet again risen to the challenge of new ways to have access.

So don’t worry, we’re not in danger of losing our internet access.  For now, let’s enjoy our newest solution to help guarantee our continued collective access.   And when we see the next solution 'coming 'round the bend', we will be letting you know about it.

NTI is committed to providing objective and superior technology services including planning systems & budgets, designing all required technology systems, documenting our design in an IFC or construction document set, managing the procurement and/or installation processes, and verifying that all technology works as designed on opening day.    We are also committed to helping demystify the newer technologies as they enter the discussion as potential new solutions in commercial environments.

We trust this article helped you better understand CBRS.

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