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Similar to later 4G networks, 5G performance will be propped up by semi–shared spectrum such as Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS). This shouldn’t be a surprise to long–term observers of cellular networks.
Real–world 5G hasn’t delivered the kind of performance its early boosters promised. This is partly because millimeter wave mobile 5G networks, which have mainly been rolled out in the U.S., can deliver 1 Gbps data speeds but only at a range of around 100 meters. In addition, the mmWave signals can’t penetrate walls and certain types of windows. Meaning that your fancy mmWave 5G phone is fairly useless unless you are outdoors and close to a 5G base station.
That’s why in 2022, most U.S. operators have switched their 5G focus to deploying mid–band networks. Such networks don’t deliver the blazing speeds of mmWave, but they offer sufficient speeds for mobile (100 Mbps+) and deliver 5G signals indoors.
AT&T, Dish, T–Mobile, and Verizon are all deploying mid–range networks. AT&T and Verizon are now rolling out C–band (3.7 to 4.2 GHz) 5G networks. T–Mobile is steadily implementing its 2.5 GHz frequency across the country. Dish, meanwhile, is using band 66 (AWS) mid–band spectrum in Vegas and beyond to speed up its 5G network performance.
To that end, operators and startups are starting to consider using a 3.5 to 3.7 GHz spectrum, which is known as CBRS in the U.S., as a way to boost 5G performance.
Verizon recently announced plans to support 5G on both CBRS Priority Access License (PAL) and General Authorized Access (GAA) spectrum. “[With] CBRS licenses in markets across the nation, Verizon is positioned to expand its 5G network to this new spectrum in parallel with its ongoing 5G deployment on C–band,” Verizon said in a press release.
Verizon hasn’t yet said when it will start deploying CBRS 5G equipment. The network operator, however, has completed a 5G data call with Ericsson using CBRS GAA shared spectrum. Back in September 2021, Ericsson and Qualcomm started the CBRS move to a new generation with a 5G New Radio call over the spectrum. Ericsson and Nokia seem keen to start to supply CBRS 5G gear.
Verizon, meanwhile, tops all other mobile network operators and cable providers in the amount it spent on the CBRS PALs acquired at auction in September 2021. The company dropped more than $1.89 billion on 557 PALs in 157 counties. The spend was high because Verizon was acquiring licenses in heavy–traffic areas such Los Angeles county, where the cost of a single license was $52 million.
The network operator hasn’t yet said how it will use its licenses with 5G. In December 2021, wireless analytics firm Opensignal reported that the average download speeds on Verizon’s 4G network in urban areas were nearly 80% faster when the CBRS band was in the mix.
“Looking at Verizon’s average 4G download speeds with and without the support of the CBRS band in the urban areas, we observed that the use of this band significantly boosted 4G download speeds,” analysts at Opensignal said. “On the connections with the CBRS band involved, 4G download speeds experienced by Opensignal users were 78.8% faster than those without the CBRS band — clocking in with an impressive score of 74.4 Mbps.”
With mid–band 5G carrier aggregation now starting to come online, we can likely expect Verizon to deploy its PALs for 5G in a similar way to how it has already utilized them for 4G, bringing up the average data rates for the new standard.
New greenfield 5G operator Dish won most of the priority CBRS licenses in the 2020 auction. Bidding as Wetterhorn Wireless, the company secured 5,492 licenses and spent $912 million doing so. At the time, Dish had just dropped plans to build an NB–IoT network in favor of a 5G deployment.
Now, more than 2 years later, Dish has rolled out its 5G network in 120 towns and cities in the U.S., just beating the FCC requirement to cover over 20% of the American population by June 14.
The company hasn’t really said anything much about its plans for 5G usage over the CBRS spectrum. Dish will, however, likely use the spectrum to bolster its network in much the same way as Verizon. The difference is that while Dish’s CBRS holdings cover 98% of the U.S. population, in major metro areas it often purchased a single PAL to cover the region. So we might summarize Dish’s CBRS position as broad but very shallow.
Startup Helium is the wild card in the CBRS pack. Its users are just starting to implement what the company calls “open 5G” using CBRS spectrum. Helium customers are expected to deploy their own 5G gateways and small cells to provide local residents with access to the new cellular standard. Helium says the gateway providers will earn new “MOBILE rewards” for performing this service.
Although Helium HNT token hasn’t fallen as far in value as some of the major cryptos, earning HNT coins may not seem as attractive as it once did. Helium was initially built on a DIY IoT network, rather than a consumer–driven 5G network that requires the cooperation of a carrier.
As of March 2022, partner FreedomFi said it had shipped out over 10,000 5G gateways to “reservation holders”, as well as a number of indoor and outdoor 5G small cells.
When EE Times spoke to Frank Mong, Helium’s chief operating officer, about the 5G plans in April 2021, he said that the company was speaking to a “tier one” U.S. operator about collaborating so that the project could take off. Surprise! Turns out the operator is Dish.
Neither Dish, FreedomFi, nor Helium have said much about how any cooperation will work. Still, Helium could provide Dish with a low–effort mechanism to bolster its 5G coverage through the DIY network.
For its part, Helium is calling this time “cellular summer” as it prepares for the 5G launch. It says that the 5G hotspots will start earning rewards after they provide “proof of coverage” to the Helium blockchain algorithm in late summer.
In an FAQ, Helium also said that more operators will be joining their 5G scheme. We’ll just have to wait and see!