5G and the Bandit

Remember the 1977 ‘classic’ film Smokey and the Bandit. Burt Reynolds plays a free-wheeling race car driver speeding along the highways of America outsmarting the police with his ragtag army of truck drivers wielding Citizens’s Band (CB) radios? No? Go watch it first and come back.

The true hero of that movie are those CB radios. This was one of the first unlicensed spectrum bands to gain widespread popularity in the US. Anyone with a CB radio could tune in and communicate across a few hundred miles of range. Ultimately, these were replaced by private radio networks and eventually the Internet, but there something about CB radios that clearly resonated with the public for a time.

We raise this point now because on July 23 the US FCC is auctioning off more spectrum for a 21st Century CB radio. The latest incarnation is known as CBRS (Citizens’ Band Radio Service). There are a few differences this time around. The new spectrum will not be free for anyone to use, hence the auction this week. Instead, the idea is that companies can use the spectrum to build their own private networks. And like its 1970’s counterpart, CBRS seems to resonate with a certain audience.

Over 270 companies have registered for the auction. In addition to the usual telecom operators, there are a number of non-traditional companies signing up to become wireless operators. This includes the cable operators (MSOs), the rural broadband providers and utilities. However, we also know of several other types of corporations who are looking at and may even win some of the spectrum.

Over the years, a few companies have acquired radio spectrum in the US, notably the power utilities building wireless metering. But the process has always been cumbersome and expensive, requiring special purpose radio equipment.

CBRS differs in that it uses equipment largely similar to traditional cellular service. The standards have made it much easier to accommodate CBRS service by smaller, private networks.

Imagine you run a bread company with hundreds of delivery vehicles on the road every day. It would be nice to have a radio to communicate with the driver. It would also be nice to have cameras on and inside the truck, to monitor traffic, driving patterns and inventory levels. It would be great to have temperature and humidity sensors in there as well. You could have that today, but it would require each one of those to connect to separate radio networks, or pay a full cell phone subscription. We identified some of these problems when we wrote about how IoT is such a mess. With CBRS, companies can buy their own spectrum and operate their own networks, giving them far greater control, flexibility and pricing for their operations.

Obviously, our example above simplifies things considerably. And while 1970’s CBs were open to anyone, 2020 CBRS really only appeals to a select group.

That being said, this cold be a sizable opportunity for new service providers to enter the market. We have long held that wireless networks are gradually getting dis-articulated, as vertical silos are broken up through the power of Internet networking. The pending transition to 5G makes this much easier, allowing far more granular control of the networks and easing integration with IT systems.

We have to see how the auction pans out. If the winners are all named Verizon and AT&T, we can probably relegate CBRS to the acronym graveyard. On the other hand, if we see companies like Comcast or Charter, or perhaps like Amazon and Google emerge with spectrum, we could be witnessing the start of a new chapter in wireless networking.

Of course, once the auctions are done, the industry is going to need places to put all that new radio equipment.

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