Verizon expected to go big in CBRS 3.5 GHz auction
A wide range of analysts and industry observers anticipate that Verizon will spend heavily on 3.5GHz CBRS licenses during the FCC’s spectrum auction next month.
“I expect Verizon to participate because they could use some midband spectrum,” said analyst Peter Rysavy of Rysavy Research.
And how much spectrum will Verizon purchase? “A lot,” estimated analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics. Indeed, as Light Reading reported roughly a year ago, Verizon has been adding CBRS transmitters to its cell sites for months.
“They have already deployed thousands of antennas that support 3.5GHz and now will light up that spectrum as an added capacity layer,” explained analyst Chris Nicoll with ACG Research.
“I expect Verizon to be an active bidder … It will try to get as much as it can,” predicted analyst Kyung Mun of research firm Mobile Experts, noting that FCC rules prohibit any one CBRS auction bidder from buying more than 40MHz in any one location. “As for how much it would be spending for licenses, that would depend on markets, of course.”
Meaning, Verizon might need to dole out big bucks for a license that covers New York City, considering a range of other companies like Charter Communications or T-Mobile might also want that license. But a license covering a small town – Socorro, New Mexico, for example – probably won’t generate as much interest.
Hurting for more midband spectrum
The appeal of the 3.5GHz CBRS band to Verizon is directly tied to its spectrum position relative to its rivals. Verizon is the largest wireless network operator in the US in terms of the size of its customer base, but it’s dead last in terms of midband and lowband spectrum ownership.
“We believe Verizon is likely to be the most aggressive [CBRS bidder], given their relative lack of midband spectrum, while T-Mobile is likely to be the most opportunistic,” wrote the Wall Street analysts at Evercore in a recent note to investors.
And that CBRS spectrum could significantly improve Verizon’s network. The Wall Street analysts at Cowen recently noted that CBRS spectrum is “ideal to augment existing capacity.” The firm wrote that an operator with 30MHz of CBRS spectrum could bond that spectrum to its AWS spectrum holdings with carrier aggregation technology in order to increase customers’ download speeds by a factor of three.
Thus, the only real question is just how big Verizon might go. “It’s going to be interesting,” said Jennifer McCarthy, the VP of legal for Federated Wireless, one of a handful of companies managing the Spectrum Access Systems (SASs) that regulate usage of the CBRS band. Verizon said last year it is working with SAS vendors Google and Federated Wireless on its initial CBRS deployments.
“Do they go for a full nationwide footprint” with CBRS? wondered McCarthy. “I do think they have a preference for having a truly nationwide footprint. But this is fairly unique spectrum.”
“Maybe that’s a decision they make in the middle of the auction?” she added.
A unique auction
The FCC’s CBRS auction, scheduled to start July 23, represents a first-in-the-world implementation of real-time spectrum sharing between commercial and government users. Specifically, thanks to a network of monitoring stations along the US East and West Coasts, the US Navy can use the CBRS band any time it wants to by kicking everyone else off the band – but if it’s not using the band, everyone else gets to use it. And in the vast interior portion of the country, the full 150MHz of the band is available for mostly unfettered commercial uses.
The full CBRS band was opened up last year for unlicensed uses, dubbed GAA (General Authorized Access). Verizon could potentially use the CBRS band as an unlicensed GAA user; in fact, it already makes use of the 5GHz unlicensed band with License Assisted Access (LAA) technology for additional network capacity. However, the FCC’s CBRS auction next month will set aside half the band, roughly 70MHz, for licensed uses (dubbed Priority Access Licenses, or PAL). Licensed CBRS spectrum users will not have to share their spectrum with any other commercial user – thus, if Verizon buys the maximum of 40MHz of CBRS PAL spectrum in New York City at auction, it will not have to share that spectrum with Charter Communications or any other GAA user.
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