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FAQ: What in the wireless world is CBRS?


First off, CBRS is an acronym for Citizens Broadband Radio Service, and the upshot for IT pros is that it could enable enterprises to build their own private 4G/5G networks and result in improved 4G/5G offerings from service providers. Here’s a primer on CBRS — because you are going to want to know about this.

Citizens Band/CB, as in CB radio?

No, good buddy, this has nothing to do with the Citizens’ Band radio service used by truckers for two-way voice communications and that lives in the 27MHz band in the U.S.  CBRS lives in the 3.5GHz band.

What is CBRS then?

CBRS is a band of radio-frequency spectrum from 3.5GHz to 3.7GHz that the Federal Communications Commission has designated for sharing among three tiers of users: incumbent users, priority licensees and generally authorized, which is unlicensed.

The incumbents are those who have historically held exclusive rights to the band: satellite ground stations and the Navy. Priority licenses will be auctioned off June 25 and will allow licensees to use the band in particular U.S. counties so long as they don’t interfere with the incumbents and tolerate interference from the incumbents. Generally authorized access gives users the right to use the band as long as they don’t interfere with the other two categories of users.

Who’s making sure there’s no interference among users?

A network of sensors – the Environmental Sensing Capability (ESC) – detects use of CBRS. Devices that want to use the CBRS band put in requests to a cloud-based Spectrum Access System (SAS) to reserve unused channels in a particular geographic area. If channels are free, SAS can grant the requests. When devices with permission to use channels are done with them, they are put back into the pool that the SAS can draw from to grant further requests.

How did the 3.5 GHz band suddenly become available for new commercial services? Isn’t spectrum a super scarce resource?

The freeing up of the 3550-3700 MHz band stems from the 2010 National Broadband Plan issued by the FCC, which set out to make 500 MHz of additional spectrum available for new mobile uses. The FCC zeroed in on the 3.5 GHz band (which has dubbed the “innovation band”) in rules issued in April of 2015, then reaffirmed those rules about a year later. In the meantime, it has worked out the details of implementation.

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