Before we begin, consider the following quote:
“Over 70% of commercial buildings [including hospitals] have insufficient mobile coverage indoors. OnGo improves wireless coverage and capacity, making it ideal for wireless needs in a world where spectrum is limited, but data demand is not.” – Joel Lindholm, Ruckus Networks, CBRS Business Working Group Chair
In the spirit of full disclosure, I took this directly from the CBRS Alliance website. But, the statement is powerful. It also exemplifies why I’ve recently heard several variations of the same opinion: CBRS is going to be a DAS killer.
How so? Well, at its most basic level, it could be because DAS has been around for decades, and it still hasn’t seemed to solve the problem of ubiquitous in-building wireless coverage. Even when talking to Commscope, one of the largest DAS vendors in the world, they told me that, “The days of people being OK with walking around the floor of an office building to find bars on their phone is over.” So, if DAS still isn’t getting it done, maybe CBRS-driven solutions could provide the answer. Here are a few reasons why this could be so:
- Licensed spectrum. While the process is not yet finalized, the fact that the FCC is taking unlicensed spectrum and approving it for dedicated use is a great way to spur commercial development. In fact, this gives way to reason #2.
- Heavyweight support. Partially driven by the FCC’s willingness to allocate spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band, the industry stalwarts have lined up to support CBRS development. AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile US, Nokia, Ericsson, CommScope, and scores of other high profile industry players are CBRS Alliance members. This means that there are piles of smart people working on ways to commercialize CBRS-based solutions. It also means that big companies with deep pockets have bought into the ROI models, and now have a vested interest in making CBRS work as a viable commercial solution.
- Neutral host and private network opportunities. Despite interest from the AT&Ts and Verizons of the world, one facet of the CBRS story that seems to be resonating strongly is that of putting control of a bona fide LTE network into the hands of a building facilities manager or in the IT department of a tenant. This seems appealing to commercial real estate stakeholders that have been frustrated by the lack of willingness of big carriers to invest the time and money to properly equip their buildings.
On its face, these are three powerful reasons why CBRS will make a major mark on the in-building connectivity market, much of which could come at the expense of DAS deployments. However, scratch a bit deeper, and there are equally powerful reasons why the road to seamless, CBRS-fueled ultra-broadband connectivity on a broad scale could be a long one.
- Licensed spectrum. How long has the market been talking about the FCC and CBRS in the same breath? Years. The FCC moves slowly, and that will continue to be a near-term inhibitor of real commercial momentum.
- Heavyweight support – part I. This is a blessing and a curse. While it is great that AT&T, et. al. are interested in CBRS, it is also true that they are going to lobby the FCC for the most advantageous spectrum rulings as they can. This has shown to be a factor in slowing an already deliberate process.
- Heavyweight support – part II. It also means that the large network operators and technology solutions providers aren’t going to deploy commercial networks without a substantial amount of service definition to point to, rely on, and ultimately, fall back on. This is likely a major underlying factor in the CBRS Alliance’s certification program. Further on the double-edged sword theme, while certification programs provide a level of predictability, reliability, and comfort with respect to a new technology roll-out, which can spur deployments. It also forces companies to spend time and money to meet the certification standards. This might not be a material inhibitor to companies with tens of billions in revenue. But, it can be for the ecosystem of smaller vendors that are also going to play a key role in CBRS technology development.
- Neutral host and private networks – part I. OK, let’s say the Crown Castles of the world are all in on CBRS? They are still in business to make money. As such, they are going to have ROI models for investing in the solutions required to fully outfit a building or cluster of buildings. To this end, securing investment from a neutral host could be as trying as getting Verizon to invest in outfitting a building.
- Neutral host and private networks – part II. If part of the idea is that building owners and tenants get to run their own LTE networks, then that should be a sign that we should pump the brakes. Operating a telecom-grade network in licensed spectrum – regardless of how small in scale – is a complex undertaking. IT departments are already taxed to the brink in dealing with the multitude of issues already on their plates. If building and running a private LTE network is going to add to this burden – and it will – then this is a meaningful inhibitor that will have to be overcome.
None of this is to say that CBRS momentum isn’t real, and that it is not destined to have a powerful, positive impact on in-building connectivity. Despite the list of “cons” above, CBRS will almost certainly have an impactful role to play on not only in-building scenarios, but also on small cells in general… and hence, 5G. That said, like most everything else in the telecom world, CBRS probably won’t “kill” anything, especially not DAS. What it will do is be one more valuable ingredient in a very complex recipe for ubiquitous connectivity.