Curious about the recent auction for the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum usage in the United States? We explain who won the FCC auction and how you can access the CBRS spectrum as an enterprise.
Who won in the CBRS auction?
Mobile network operators and cable companies were the primary bidders and winners in the FCC auction for priority access licenses (PALs) within the CBRS band - up to 40MHz (out of the full 150MHz CBRS spectrum) per county. Other commercial use of the remaining CBRS band is still permitted with the Generally Authorized Access tier.
What exactly is CBRS?
Citizens Broadband Radio Spectrum (CBRS) is a spectrum in the 3550-3700 MHz band allocated for private use by the FCC. This band was exclusively used by the United States Navy and other governmental agencies. The FCC has decided to open up the underutilized 3.5 GHz band for private broadband use, ushering in a new opportunity for businesses to build their own private mobile networks.
The CBRS spectrum is separated into three tiers: Incumbents, Priority Access, (PAL) and General Authorized Access (GAA).
- Incumbents: Reserved for governmental agencies, Navy ships, and fixed satellite stations. Nothing is allowed to interfere.
- Priority Access License: Licenses are for commercial business use and acquired through CBRS auctions.
- General Authorized Access: GAA is the lowest tier on the CBRS and must accept interference from both tiers. Devices in this range can include mobile phones, small cell towers, and IoT devices.
Private mobile networks give organizations a way to scale their communications without having to worry about interference on a shared spectrum or the reliability of large commercial mobile network operators.
What was the CBRS auction?
Auctions for spectrum licenses such as CBRS allow organizations to purchase exclusive licensing to parts of the spectrum for commercial use. Priority Access Licenses (PALs) are purchased on a county-by-county basis for a term of ten years with the option of renewal. The FCC has held and will hold more auctions for spectrum bands different from CBRS that can be used to deploy private LTE and 5G wireless networks.
Each bidder is allowed to bid on no more than four blocks of spectrum per county. This method of PAL auctioning allows organizations to build long-term private mobile communications without the risk of losing access to their licensing.
Auction 105 was the first CBRS auction to take place and was held on July 23th, 2020. The auction allowed for seven PALs per county, totaling 22,631 PALs nationwide. Auction 105 concluded in $4.6 billion in bids primarily from communication giants such as Dish Network, Verizon, and Charter Communications.
Major utility companies also purchased a majority of the available PALs during Auction 105. Alabama Power Company came in as the leading bidder among utility companies securing 271 PALs in 103 counties. PALs offer utility companies a secure and reliable way to monitor their subscriber’s usage, as well as provide mobile connectivity to staff out in the field.
Of the 22,631 licenses available, 20,625 were won during the 28 day auction period.
What is a Priority Access License? (PAL)
PAL is the second tier on the CBRS spectrum designated for private commercial use. The PAL tier benefits from protection against interference from the lower GAA tier, as well as guaranteed access to portions of the spectrum based on individual counties. While not every organization will need PAL access, CBRS auctions provide an opportunity for enterprises to secure spectrum access first for their private communications.
How the CBRS auction works
Spectrum auctions are held online and coordinated by the FCC. Before the auction, bidders can review the available PALs that are available and register their account online. The auction consists of a series of deadlines for the initial application, upfront payments, bidding, and long-form application.
The spectrum auction uses an ascending clock format where bidders indicate their demand for licensing per county as the price increases. The minimum opening bid is set to the reserve price, which is currently calculated at $0.02 per MHz-pop at a minimum of $1,000.
During the round, bidders will be able to view the highest and lowest price at which their bids can be set and bid on up to four PAL licenses per county. Ascending rounds are determined based on the demand for each bidder within a single county. The system uses this information to set the minimum bidding at the start of the next round.
Winners will need to fill out a series of post-auction forms such as the FCC Form 601 and Form 602. These forms are required to broadcast and contain questions regarding ownership, eligibility, and the location of your CBRS services.
The outcome of the auction should not impact the bandwidth usage of other PAL holders as long as their license is still active. New CBRS auctions are announced on the FCC website along with the dates and deadlines to participate. CBRS auctions are an excellent way to get first access to the PAL tier in specific areas without having to rely on the secondary market.
PAL vs GAA - Which is right for me?
Many organizations can benefit from using GAA even if they do not have access to PAL. GAA usage provides companies with the benefits of private mobile access without the need for a separate license.
Note that the PAL is regarded to be in use only if a radio is deployed utilizing the priority access to the specific portion of the spectrum - and only within the coverage area of that radio.
Organizations looking to deploy CBRS services across multiple counties or for a long period may want to explore obtaining a PAL. PALs help provide stable long-term spectrum access ideal for wide-scale use. Service providers who purchase PAL access in CBRS auctions often lease or sell portions of the spectrum themselves.
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