CBRS: How Much Does Priority Access Matter?

Peter Jarich

Peter Jarich – VP, Consumer Services and Service Provider Infrastructure

Summary Bullets:

  • Ongoing questions around CBRS priority access license (PAL) terms suggest that licenses won’t likely be available until a year from now.
  • Without priority access, CBRS will still roll out; many use cases don’t require it. However, the sooner PAL terms are decided on and licenses auctioned, the better it will be for driving the industry forward.

Combining insatiable spectrum demands, an interest in targeting enterprises with wireless technology (from vendors and services providers), and imminent commercialization, there was little doubt that CBRS would be a hot topic at the GSMA’s inaugural Mobile World Congress Americas event.

And, sure enough, it was. Vendors – including Corning/SpiderCloud, Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, and ZTE – came prepared to talk up their CBRS products. U.S. cableco Charter made news by announcing work with multiple vendors to test mobile and fixed broadband wireless services in the band. Spectrum access system (SAS) supplier Federated Wireless announced a new round of funding and the availability of its spectrum controller. Against this backdrop, however, conference sessions and conversations pointed to a number of unresolved questions around the market. When will the FCC actually authorize spectrum access systems? How many SAS providers can we actually expect to be operational? How (and when) will PAL allocation take place, giving licensees priority access to the spectrum over ‘general authorized access’ (GAA) users? Until it does, will service providers engage with CBRS on more than a trial basis?

Digging deeper, then, CBRS stakeholders came prepared with answers.

  • SAS authorization by the FCC is impending, expected in early 2018.
  • Many companies (at least nine) have shown an interest in providing SAS services, with clear commitments from Google and Federated Wireless. Judging by the number of trials and vendors to which it is linked (not to mention its recent funding), Federated qualifies as the furthest along.
  • While soliciting PAL comments now, the FCC should have them wrapped up by year-end (or early 2018, more likely). This puts CBRS on track for PAL auctions in the latter part of 2018.
  • While awaiting clarity on PAL licensing, CBRS can – and will – move forward on a GAA basis. They won’t have the same level of protection as users with priority (when that’s available) but can still operate in the spectrum once SAS systems are authorized and leveraged.

Yet, while the timelines around CBRS licensing might be estimated, they don’t answer the other big questions. How will service providers think about CBRS in the absence of priority access? How attractive will they find it?

As much as it might be true that GAA services can kick off not long after SAS authorization, the importance of priority access can’t be ignored. Beyond the sharing scheme with incumbent users, priority access helps to distinguishes CBRS from unlicensed spectrum bands. The promise of priority access, in turn, is an obvious draw for anyone looking to invest in major CBRS deployments; it’s much easier, after all, to commit to a major investment when there’s some assurance of service quality – some assurance of return on investment. This includes deployments by major mobile (or would-be mobile) carriers, which will help to scale the industry.

So, while we wait for PAL auctions and allocations, where does CBRS stand? What does the next year hold? Just another year of waiting?

Probably not. Once GAA operations become available (after the FCC authorizes SAS providers), the band will be only lightly used at first – while the device ecosystem develops and deployments ramp. The need for priority access will be limited. Even when usage in the band does pick up, though, many CBRS use cases won’t necessarily require it: private LTE deployments away from interference from other users, in-home applications where CBRS spectrum usage is likely to be limited, rural wireless ISP (WISP) applications. To be fair, national rollouts from service providers will be crucial to helping the CBRS ecosystem scale, and it’s unlikely that any service provider would commit to that type of rollout without some expectation of priority. But, where there’s an expectation that priority will be auctioned off at some point, and deployed infrastructure can take advantage of it, that may be enough to get service providers engaged.

The key, then, is knowing that priority access is coming. To that end, every player in the CBRS ecosystem needs to keep pushing for it, guarding against a slowdown in rolling out licenses. After all, with technologies like 5G on the horizon, carriers have plenty of other things to focus on; they will move on if strategic opportunities like CBRS seem to drag for too long. After all, there’s no reason why 5G can’t get deployed in the band.

About Peter Jarich
Peter is Vice President for the Current Analysis Consumer and Infrastructure services. Peter and his analyst team monitor and evaluate activities in the markets for Consumer Services and Devices, Digital Media, Fixed Access, IP Services, Mobile Access, and Transport and Routing Infrastructure, Telecom Vendor Services, and overall coverage of the Mobile Ecosystem.

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