- In the run-up to 5G launches, new shared and unlicensed spectrum usage is helping to open up new business models for mobile operators.
- Beyond the development of technologies like LTE-U, LAA, CBRS and MulteFire, development of the ecosystems around those technologies and examples of how they can be commercially put to use will drive their success.
To date, most commercial, mobile wireless services have been built on a foundation of licensed spectrum. Going forward, 5G won’t change that.
Where the next generation of wireless technology requires a massive technology investment, mobile operators will want the network quality and availability assurances (not to mention competitive advantages) that licensed spectrum delivers. 5G will, however, bring an understanding that new spectrum access regimes are required that are tailored to the availability of spectrum, tailored to the requirements of the digital industries being targeted, and tailored to the opportunity to improve the efficiency of spectrum usage in unlicensed and shared spectrum bands.
The 2017 Story
Much like the Gigabit LTE story, the 2017 story around spectrum sharing – including unlicensed and shared spectrum – is very much centered on LTE, setting the stage for new 5G spectrum usage going forward. In short, this is the year we’re starting to see real forward momentum on moving cellular technologies (LTE, in this case) into these types of spectrum.
- The Citizens Broadband Radio Service – covering the 3.5 GHz spectrum in the U.S. – represents a scheme to allow incumbent military users to share access to airwaves with prioritized licensees and non-prioritized general access users. While it doesn’t assume the use of LTE, the CBRS Alliance formed in 2016 to drive that outcome, ramping membership this year to include all major U.S. wireless operators and consumer electronics heavyweight Samsung. As important as the Alliance’s development, Qualcomm announced that its upcoming X20 modem will support the band. With Spectrum Access System (the sharing coordination function) certification planned for later this year, the stage is set for mobile device-based CBRS rollouts next year, with the potential for fixed services before year-end 2017.
- MulteFire represents the use of LTE in unlicensed spectrum without any support from a licensed “anchor.” In other words, it allows for operation of LTE in unlicensed bands by operators without access to licenses spectrum – think enterprises and non-mobile operators. Here, progress is similar to that of CBRS. 2017 has seen new supporters come on board, along with the development of the MulteFire Alliance’s Release 1.0 specification, building on 3GPP R13 and R14 to define the solution and mechanisms for co-existence with WiFi, SIM and SIM-less authentication, neutral host operations, etc. With trials based on the 1.0 specification kicking off early next year, the groundwork is set to enable a MulteFire ecosystem.
- LTE-U / LAA. If the 2017 story for CBRS and MulteFire is very much about foundation building, the LTE-U and LAA stories are about commercialization. Plans to leverage LTE in unlicensed spectrum, with a licensed anchor for control and traffic, have been in the works for a while, either leveraging listen-before-talk (LBT) for co-existence with WiFi (license assisted access or LAA) or without LBT (LTE-U). With the launch of Samsung’s Galaxy S8, however, devices are now available to support the technologies when paired with network support. Cue carriers like T-Mobile in the U.S., who has announced LTE-U in select locations, with LAA on the roadmap alongside rival AT&T.
While the technologies are fundamentally different, each presents an example of ways to leverage shared or unlicensed spectrum in innovative ways to drive efficiencies and market expansion: spectral efficiency by leveraging LTE capabilities in new bands; market expansion by opening up LTE use and service launches to new constituencies without licensed spectrum.
If 2017 brings us the first commercial LTE-U/LAA services, while setting the stage for CBRS and MulteFire rollouts, the question of “what’s next” is, seemingly, an easy one to answer. But the full answer is more complicated than “commercialization this year, followed by more next year.”
From a technology standpoint, there will be progress on all fronts. With 5G on the horizon, 5G NR air interface support in unlicensed spectrum has been introduced as a study item as part of 3GPP R15. On the sharing front, CBRS work in the U.S. holds the potential to drive similar schemes in other markets (e.g., in Europe’s 2.3 GHz spectrum) and to inspire new sharing paradigms in 5G. And, of course, ecosystem support – device availability, in particular – must continue to develop in order to drive commercialization into the mainstream.
Beyond trials, or launches, or device introductions, or global traction, perhaps most important to the success of spectrum sharing will be an exploration and understanding of the business models it enables as initial deployments take root. Private networks launched by enterprises that are tailored for specific applications, e.g., IoT. Private networks launched for enterprises by mobile carriers or IT service providers. Neutral host networks launched in (and by) venues providing patrons with higher speeds and better coverage no matter the mobile carrier they use. New opportunities for cable operators looking to deliver inside-out network coverage. As much as spectrum sharing is about freeing up additional spectrum for mobile services, it would be a shame if it was only that – and not taken as an opportunity to enable new business models. With commercialization underway this year, that will be key in 2018 and beyond.