Some panelists at the 2022 NTIA Spectrum Policy Symposium on Monday spoke highly of the benefits of Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS).

However, not everyone agrees with that assessment.  

Industry analyst Roger Entner took to Twitter to note that he can’t reconcile the big “CBRS success” story with reality. “Every time someone updates CBRS equipment forecast it is down, not up,” he stated. “None of the vendors are happy with the size and direction of CBRS deployment.”

“You can’t find anybody who’s actually using this intensively,” Entner told Fierce. “Verizon used it as a stop-gap measure for not having any [mid-band] spectrum, but now they concentrate on C-band. When you look at it… it was the lowest valued auction in like 20 years. I can’t find who is actually using this.”

The dirty little secret that nobody wants to talk about, he said, is it’s extremely difficult for two General Authorized Access (GAA) unlicensed users in the same geography to share spectrum. “It’s really, really hard. Sharing in the shared GAA is extremely hard” due to the FCC’s rules, he said.

All kinds of spectrum scenarios were discussed during the symposium, which featured appearances by Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel and Department of Defense CIO John Sherman.

At one point during one panel discussion, CBRS became a focal point.

Panelist Hank Hultquist, VP of Federal Regulatory at AT&T, suggested it’s a good idea to look back now and then to consider whether spectrum decisions meet the goals they set out to accomplish.

“In the case of CBRS, I don’t know the answer to that question,” he said. “I know that when CBRS was established, there were expectations for what it could achieve and I think it’s important in retrospect to say, ‘OK, how are we doing? Is it functioning as it’s intended to do?’”

Colleen King, VP of Regulatory Affairs at Charter Communications, answered that with Charter’s experience, saying CBRS is a great success and continues to grow. The diversity of users has been impressive and the CBRS auction attracted a lot more bidders than the typical auction, she said.

The use cases are broad: A cable operator like Charter will use CBRS for 5G services while smaller entities like schools will use it for private networks. “It’s growing. It was the first big dynamic sharing regime, and we’re really just building on that,” she said.

History of CBRS

One of the objections about doing the CBRS “experiment,” as it was called in its earliest formative years, was that many other parts of the world reserved spectrum in that area – 3.5 GHz – for 5G, and if the U.S. went a different way, that would put it at a disadvantage.  

The FCC’s CBRS rules actually underwent a revision at one point. Under the Obama Administration, the Tom Wheeler-led FCC developed rules that were centered on census-tract licenses that covered a small number of people, encouraging more participation. Under the Trump Administration, the Ajit Pai-led FCC re-did the rules, creating bigger county-sized licenses and extending license terms.

Today, “it’s 150 megahertz in the middle of mid-band that is very lightly used, in the name of innovation,” Entner said on Monday. “The problem is: show me the innovators. This is supposedly the innovator band, without innovators, and that’s being called a great success.”

In a wide-ranging interview with Fierce last week, Adam Koeppe, SVP for Technology Strategy and Planning at Verizon, said CBRS is an important piece of Verizon’s network.

Verizon uses CBRS extensively, both in unlicensed and licensed forms, and CBRS is in wide deployment, with a road map to 5G NR that’s already being tested, he said. They expect the 5G version to be available in the network in 2023.

The use rules and low-power profile for CBRS make it ideally suited for small cells and in-building systems, and Verizon has deployed “over 10,000 of those,” he said. “We love CBRS and it’s got a great road map to 5G NR.”

However, he did acknowledge industry efforts to get a higher power use approved for the CBRS band. The hope is that the FCC will work to increase the power use rules. “We look to the FCC for guidance on that front,” Koeppe said.

The beat goes on: CTIA

Citing an updated study from Analysys Mason, CTIA today issued a statement saying the U.S. must expand its 5G spectrum pipeline in order to keep pace with other countries that are moving rapidly to make licensed mid-band spectrum available for 5G.

“Today, the U.S. lags the top three studied nations – Japan, the United Kingdom and France – by 530 MHz on average,” CTIA stated. “In five years, the U.S. will continue to lag, trailing the future top three countries by 415 MHz on average.”

Fierce reached out to CTIA to see if it had a stance on the status of the CBRS band.

“The CBRS experiment has certainly put the U.S. behind other countries when it comes to putting mid-band spectrum to use for full-powered 5G. Policymakers can help close that gap by allocating more spectrum in the 3-7 GHz range for exclusive licensed use,” said Tom Power, SVP and general counsel at CTIA, in a statement provided to Fierce. 

The organization’s press release also noted one of the key findings of the Analysys Mason report: The U.S. is the only country to date to make unlicensed spectrum available between 3.3 GHz and 4.2 GHz, via the CBRS band.

Too soon to make the call

Blair Levin, policy analyst at the Wall Street firm New Street Research (NSR) and a former chief of staff at the FCC, said it’s very early on and too soon to call it in terms of whether CBRS is a success or not.

“If you had said is Wi-Fi a success a few years after the FCC had authorized it, I don’t think you would have known. Innovation takes time; ecosystems take time,” he told Fierce.  

Instead of framing it as a CBRS success vs. failure, Levin suggested looking at what CBRS says about the development of spectrum policy.  The Aspen Institute recently announced, through Aspen Digital, a new report that relied on a wide range of spectrum stakeholders to lay out steps to a nationwide spectrum policy for the years ahead.

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