On Monday, after six years in development, the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) and its OnGo initiative reached an important milestone in realizing its initial commercial deployment. The service promises to deliver a flexible model for the sharing of wireless spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band that’s been reallocated from military radar applications. Spectrum drives the overall capacity for wireless communication and is one of the most scarce and expensive resources carriers invest in beyond core infrastructure. I liken spectrum to lanes on a highway. The more lanes, the higher the capacity. The game-changer with CBRS is that carriers and service providers that want to offer wireless services won’t have to pay expensive spectrum licenses upfront for roughly half of its availability under the General Authorized Access tier (GAA). That levels the playing field and should result in massive innovation and new use cases given the stewardship by the CBRS Alliance.
The mission of the CBRS Alliance
The CBRS Alliance was formed in 2016 by a handful of companies interested in promoting adoption. Today it boasts 130 companies, including technology stalwarts like AT&T, Cisco Systems, Ericsson, Intel, Nokia, Qualcomm, Samsung, and others. Its stated mission is to evangelize LTE (and eventually 5G) use cases, drive technology developments to support its mission, support advocacy with regulatory agencies, and establish a product certification program. I’ve spoken with both Chris Stark, Chairman, and Dave Wright, President, and I was struck with the depth of acumen that the board and membership brings to delivering wireless services under this highly disruptive new model. The CBRS Alliance takes a use case-based approach, and from my perspective that’s also driven significant momentum behind the effort. By its nature, the 3.5 GHz band delivers excellent propagation over long distances—applications in education, hospitality, retail, manufacturing, and transportation are especially compelling.
A new brand and ecosystem of partners
OnGo is positioned to deliver “uncompromised connectivity” for in-building, public space, and Industrial IoT deployments. While I believe the recent introduction of Wi-Fi 6 is compelling and will continue to meet the needs of many with its unlicensed spectrum and corresponding economics, OnGo should serve a growing niche for private LTE and eventually 5G networks. Two big private network advantages in my mind are the ability to fine-tune overall network performance for specific application needs (such as lower latency for video) and to support remote and highly distributed worksites that might not have access to fiber or carrier-delivered fixed wireless access (FWA) services.
Through its certification program, OnGo and the CBRS Alliance aim to ensure that infrastructure and end user devices deliver high performance and interoperability on the network. Today at launch, it supports more than 40 devices, including smartphones, push-to-talk devices, modems, routers, IoT devices, and FWA equipment. Samsung supports the OnGo initiative with its Galaxy S10. Additionally, Motorola’s CBRS purpose-built MOTOTRBO Nitro platform will scale from cloud to on-premise for deployment flexibility. Nitro promises to deliver not only the infrastructure but also the managed services and end user devices (including a push-to-talk two-way radio with a built in Wi-Fi hot spot). Even Apple, chided for not supporting 5G with its recent iPhone 11 launch, is supporting the initiative with the new handsets announced last week.
Today represents just the first step for the CBRS OnGo initiative. Additional deployments are expected in the latter part of 2019 and early 2020. All of this is no trivial feat—it required the coordination of multiple U.S. governmental agencies including the Department of Defense and the Federal Communications Commission. OnGo represents an entirely new model for spectrum sharing unlike anything else globally. I believe it will not only serve as a blueprint to support needed future capacity for cellular-based services in the United States—it will drive significant innovation given the democratization of a highly prized mid-band spectrum.