As recently noted by Graybar, cities, schools, and corporations have been inquiring about a new avenue to get online, thanks to a recent move by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The North American electrical and communications products distributor notes that the Citizen Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) platform, also known as Private LTE, opens up an important slice of the U.S. radio spectrum to new uses.
“Private LTE is a local cellular network that includes cell sites and core network servers dedicated to supporting the connectivity of a specific organization’s requirements independent of the cellular networks of service providers…Private LTE is also suitable for some distributed-enterprise use cases, including stadiums, airports, amusement parks, ports, railroads, mines, oil/gas extraction, warehouses, factories, agriculture, elements of smart cities and public safety. Other applications for private LTE involve extremely remote areas with poor cellular coverage.”
Graybar recently published an informative Q&A with its National Market Manager—Wireless Solutions, Eric Toenjes, describing some of the differences CBRS/Private LTE and Wi-Fi connectivity. An excerpt is as follows:
Q: To put CBRS in context, can you talk about the radio spectrum?
Eric Toenjes - Graybar: First of all, think about your major incumbent cell carriers. They are using what’s called a licensed part of the spectrum. Nobody else can utilize that specific range purchased by and set aside for telecom services. Then think about Wi-Fi. When you go to library or a coffee shop, the Wi-Fi services are using an unlicensed part of the spectrum. All those different hot spots are competing for the same range, which is free and convenient, but that accessibility can create throughput and security issues.
CBRS uses a part of the spectrum that’s described as “lightly licensed.” Originally the Federal Communications Commission reserved all of the CBRS range for the U.S. Navy and its radar operations. The Navy doesn’t need all of the range, so last summer, the FCC created some levels of priority within the spectrum and sold some of it off in an auction.
What remains is called General Authorized Access and it’s managed by what’s called a Spectrum Allocation System or SAS. When a general user – for example, a stadium or a school campus -- requests access, SAS grants uninterrupted use in a given geography for a given time period. There are no competing demands as you have with unlicensed Wi-Fi. CBRS in effect avoids the free-for-all and has higher security than Wi-Fi. I call it a gift from the FCC to the American people.
CBRS and Private LTE are essentially the same. LTE stands for “Long Term Evolution” and that does bring to mind 4G and 5G. CBRS is currently utilizing 4G technology but it is already evolving to 5G, just like the telecom carriers.
Q: What kind of equipment does a city or organization need to set up a CBRS network?
ET - Graybar: The biggest investment is in the form of cell towers and servers, or in the case of a single building, cell equipment that works in an indoor setting.
Basically, you need enough cell transmission gear to cover the footprint of the city or the manufacturing plant, office building, hospital, arena, or school campus. Once the cell transmission equipment is tuned to the CBRS spectrum and can make requests to SAS, a computer, phone, IoT, or other mobile device can access the private network for voice or data usage, just as you can with a licensed carrier device.
Q: With local government weighing infrastructure investments, and private organizations looking at ways to increase productivity and security, what are some applications for CBRS?
ET - Graybar: On a CBRS or Private LTE implementation, you can use voice, data, two-way radio, and IoT devices. Some cities are looking to use it for Smart City backbones, with parking sensors as an example. But there are plenty of other uses.
One thing that became acutely apparent in the pandemic was the digital divide. In education we saw a widening homework gap. Kids in some households were unable to do research or turn in assignments. Improving digital access is one facet of helping more students succeed. We’re in a permanent market change, not a temporary one. By the time our kids go back to school in August, there will still be a long-term need for connectivity beyond the four walls of the school.
With libraries closed during the pandemic, it made it harder for some out of work citizens to apply for job openings or take part in online job interviews. It also hampered the distribution of information on vaccines and other health guidance. Again CBRS can improve overall access for residents of a city or county. CBRS can also help improve access to telehealth, a service that really took off during the pandemic. Doctors learned that they can interact with more patients on a daily basis.
Rural areas often have limited internet options. An investment in CBRS can be a cost-effective approach to delivering higher-speed internet access in areas where laying fiber doesn’t pencil out. Getting copper or fiber laid down over that “last mile” can be expensive. CBRS can work in a blended system. Take that cable and run it down your main right of way access, then utilize wireless for the last mile. Lightly licensed spectrum can be an advancement in rural communities.
In the private sector, I think commercial real estate developers should find CBRS of interest. Enhancing your office or industrial space with CBRS could be part of making that property more competitive. Consider using a CBRS network for your business or mission critical voice and IoT applications where wireless is needed. The security and control it offers makes those applications much more reliable, safe and private.