The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is poised to do something very special this year. The agency has set aside 150 MHz of wireless spectrum in the 3.5 GHz cellular band for citizens and companies to share as they see fit, rather than auctioning it off for billions of dollars to the highest bidder. This new shared spectrum will be free to use with centrally-coordinated channel assignments by Spectrum Access System (SAS) enabling flexible indoor and outdoor mobile solutions. Citizen Band Radio Service (CBRS) shared spectrum is a far-sighted and potentially transformative decision that could change the course of wireless communications in the United States.
Our society is in the midst of a mobility revolution, and for many citizens today a smartphone has become their primary computing device. Users expect to have wireless connectivity anywhere, anytime to their personal and professional information. Yet currently users often encounter poor service due to spectrum congestion and horrible reception inside buildings.
Current solutions are prohibitively expensive, suitable only for huge venues such as sports arenas and convention halls. But Wi-Fi and cellular standards are converging, and now this new spectrum is being made available by the FCC. CBRS allows LTE cellular (sometimes called 4G) networks to be deployed just like Wi-Fi, which has unleashed so much innovation in recent years. In fact, wireless connectivity has become so important it is often referred to as “the fourth utility.” Offering more and better wireless ways to connect has proven to increase productivity and benefit communities across the country.
The FCC is expected to finalize the rules around CBRS before the fall. Over 90 leading technology and communications companies have formed the CBRS Alliance to support the development, commercialization and adoption of the applications and services that will leverage CBRS. Many technology leaders feel that CBRS can be as transformative for mobile networking as Gigabit Ethernet was for wired network performance.
To date there have been numerous proof of concepts conducted in the commercial and federal space, with both wireless service providers and large system integrators.
Military “smart bases” are major opportunities where CBRS can add flexibility and performance while also preparing bases for an expected avalanche of Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs could avail themselves of CBRS to enhance critical wireless communications inside facilities.
Mobile device use by the Department of Defense has been in the news lately due to security concerns. With CBRS, the Pentagon could run its own private wireless mobile network to improve phone coverage and security in its massive headquarters.
More wireless options and better performance are needed for federal agencies. Unfortunately, government employees typically enjoy better cellular coverage at home than they do on the job. If the federal government does not start to offer a better wireless experience, users will be tempted to access less secure, open networks for connectivity. Surveys show this is already occurring, so federal network providers would be wise to understand CBRS now in its early stages.
Wireless is the onramp to a modern network that serves the public interest. CBRS is compelling evidence that the FCC recognizes this fact. The agency should be applauded for opening the door to new services and applications through innovative spectrum policy.
Now it’s time for the rest of government to understand CBRS and take advantage, assisted by the best practices that are being developed by the CBRS Alliance and others in the private sector. Wireless connectivity — both unlicensed and licensed — is essential for maintaining this country’s technological edge. The federal government needs to follow the FCC’s lead. The benefits of CBRS won’t be secret much longer.
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