Mobile spectrum has almost always been awarded in a few large blocks with long-term, exclusive licences, almost always acquired by conventional mobile network operators (MNOs). Yet much of the increase in mobile data usage over the past decade has actually been driven by unlicensed spectrum, especially the availability of low cost, high bandwidth WiFi.
For 4G and 5G small cells to deliver their full potential, there needs to be a middle way between these two approaches. Shared spectrum schemes like the USA’s CBRS (in 3.5 GHz) can, if well implemented, provide greater quality protections than unlicensed – by using a Spectrum Access System (SAS) to coordinate and prioritize usage – while supporting the open ecosystem of devices and service providers that has made WiFi so successful.
This year’s Small Cells World Summit, in London on May 21-22, will place spectrum issues at the heart of the agenda. In particular, it will explore how shared spectrum will work alongside traditional licences (which will support national macro networks) and enable small cells to be rolled out more quickly, and by a wide variety of deployers.
Enterprise specialists, neutral hosts and local service providers could all make strong business cases for localized small cell networks, if they did not have to buy expensive licences. And if they take some of the responsibility for densification, MNOs will benefit because they will not have to shoulder the whole cost themselves.
Speakers in several tracks of the conference will address these issues. A dedicated session, entitled ‘Spectrum for 5G era applications and services’ will take place in the afternoon of Wednesday May 22. Immediately before it will be a group of speakers discussing private cellular and IoT networks, including those in shared spectrum; while on Tuesday May 21, a session on neutral host models will also include spectrum considerations to support these emerging business models.
This is the importance of shared spectrum initiatives like CBRS – not to replace exclusive licences or challenge the MNO model, but to introduce additional approaches which can be complementary in supporting the vast range of use cases envisaged for the dense 5G network.
Small Cell Forum has taken an active role in pushing new approaches to spectrum in recent years. One of its most important partnerships is with the CBRS Alliance, and at this year’s Mobile World Congress, the two bodies announced a rich list of areas of collaboration, including:
- investigating multi-operator solutions in the 3.5 GHz band
- defining architectures for indoor densification
- exploring the international opportunity for shared spectrum coordinated by a SAS.
“As the industry shifts to focus on network densification, we expect that small cells will be a key driver for the adoption of 4G and 5G solutions in the 3.5 GHz band,” said Alan Ewing, executive director of the Alliance.
There will be updates on that partnership, and on the progress of CBRS deployment, at SCWS, but the issues of shared spectrum go well beyond this US-specific flagship initiative. Other discussions will focus on whether there are similar opportunities in other parts of the world, and how important these might be to small cell proliferation; and whether there are also strong opportunities in unlicensed bands like 5 GHz with technologies like MulteFire, or closer interworking with next generation WiFi.
Deployers in the different bands will talk about their opportunities and challenges, with Crown Castle focusing on the neutral host model in CBRS, and others sharing experiences in unlicensed options.
The session is timely, given the event’s London location, since UK regulator Ofcom is currently going through a consultation on possible new approaches to licensing when it allocates 5G spectrum in the 3.7 GHz band next year. To provide insights into that process, representatives from the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport, from Ofcom, and from the UK Spectrum Policy Forum, will take part in the conference.
To understand more about this critical enabler of small cell deployment, don’t miss the chance to take part in one of the hottest debates at this year’s SCWS.