CBRS Devices — All You Need to Know

Sara Nuss
December 19, 2022

CBRS is a recent and groundbreaking development in the world of telecommunication. It allows businesses to access the radio frequency spectrum in a way that they never have been able to before. Since 2016, this frequency band has been opened up to a wide variety of users and, as a result, companies are creating devices compatible with this new frequency band. A lot of the major wireless networks operate in the megahertz spectrum, where CBRS is in the gigahertz band. 

The different frequency length means that devices need to be constructed to operate on both bands. A phone from 2010 is not compatible with CBRS because, well, it had no reason to be, but a lot of new devices are including compatibility with this new frequency band. 

What are CBRS Devices?

There are two main categories of CBRS devices. There are CBRS-compatible devices that are gateways for routers and other internet of things devices, and there are CBRS-compatible devices like smartphones, laptops, and other smart devices. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has created a lot of guidelines and regulations regarding the use of the CBRS spectrum as well as CBRS devices, also known as Citizens Broadband Radio Service Devices (CBSDs). 

CBRS devices are not allowed to begin broadcasting on a whim. The owners of said devices must get permission from the FCC to start broadcasting on the spectrum in order to ensure that there is no interference. The transition to a semi-public CBRS spectrum was huge for the telecommunications industry, but it did create a big need for regulation amongst those who could access the spectrum. Interference is the bane of radio waves, and there is a lot of work going on to ensure that there is no interference for the wide variety of people, companies, and organizations that are making use of CBRS and CBRS devices. 

How are CBRS Devices Different?

The Citizens Broadband Radio Spectrum is very different from the ways that we undergo wireless communication today. There are access points all around that allow CBRS devices to connect to the network, but those devices cannot begin broadcasting at a whim. The interference that haunts the CBRS network is avoided at all costs, and the Spectrum Access System (SAS) works to keep all of those devices in check. Before a device can broadcast on the spectrum it has to ping the SAS and enter it into the database of broadcasting devices. If two devices attempted to broadcast on the same frequency in the same place, neither would reach its destination. Thus, this system catalogs and keeps accurate records of all of the bandwidth being used all over the United States. 

The distance that radio waves travel is a complicating factor in the distribution of the CBRS spectrum. It would be wildly inefficient if each band was only available in one place all across the United States because radio waves just don’t travel that far. So, the SAS has the unenviable task of dividing the states into counties where the spectrum is able to be utilized. Devices in that county can access a part of the spectrum, and devices in another county are able to access it as well because they are sufficiently far away to not interfere with one another. 


Businesses use two major strategies to manage their CBRS-capable devices. One is to bring your own device (BYOD). Utilizing this strategy, users, well, bring their own devices into the network. Those devices are granted access through SIM or eSIM cards, allowing employees to utilize the private mobile network without having to receive a device from the company. An example of this could be, say, a hospital. If a hospital is using a private mobile network on the CBRS spectrum for employee-to-employee communication, these employees would be able to use their current phones as long as they were CBRS devices.

If instead, a business opts to let their employees choose their own device, each person is given a list of devices from which they can choose. These are, for lack of a better term, work phones. They are managed by the corporation's IT department and are already authorized to work on the CBRS spectrum as CBRS devices. CYOD structures allow the company to have more control over the kinds of CBRS devices on their network, and how much bandwidth is being used on their network. Independent of the strategy, each device on the network needs to be authenticated and granted access to the spectrum. There are a variety of devices that are able to access the CBRS spectrum. 

CBRS Gateway

CBRS gateways allow devices to access the network. They allow CBRS devices to connect to other mobile broadband technologies to transmit their data, opening up the spectrum to more data traffic. 

CBRS Modem

A CBRS modem is a device that allows you to project a network on the CBRS spectrum. It takes data and can convert it from digital to analog. Analog data can be transferred through radio waves. Your home (most likely) has a modem that allows your home network to connect to your internet service provider. 

CBRS Phones

CBRS phones are all devices capable of supporting CBRS on the market. They are plentiful, as most newer models, to keep with the times, have added CBRS compatibility so they don’t get discarded when CBRS becomes a more common way to transmit data. 

OnGo Alliance

The OnGo Alliance is a conglomerate of companies that work towards the idea of shared 4G and 5G networks all over the world. They’ve created a lot of technology solutions that allow companies to create their own shared network with ease. This company is working to create an environment where wireless technology solutions are available for a lot of businesses and corporations to let them have efficient data transmission when they need it the most. The OnGo alliance wants to drive a robust wireless marketplace where its solutions are readily available for businesses that want to create their own wireless network without the cost and time that it has required in the past. Their technology is in its beginning stages, but they are spearheading the push toward the next generation of wireless communication. 

What is CBRS?

CBRS devices are able to interact with the CBRS network. Just about every new device is able to interact this way, but, since older devices had no need to use this frequency band they will not be able to use the CBRS spectrum. 

The CBRS spectrum is a new radio service that gives people the ability to host shared and private networks. While CBRS is used in 4G LTE networks, its true colors shine in 5G networks. It gives users the ability to utilize the network for communication and data transfer without having to rely on major wireless companies to do so. Many companies are in the position of deciding whether they should use Wi-Fi for communications, a major wireless network, or CBRS. All of the options have advantages and disadvantages, but lately, CBRS has grown greatly in popularity amongst all sectors of corporations. 

Using CBRS and CBRS devices as private 4G LTE or 5G networks can enhance the speed at which devices can communicate with one another. CBRS technology presents a cost-effective way for companies to create and maintain the infrastructure necessary to host communication between all of their devices. Through CBRS technology solutions, the cost to transfer data is much lower than other conventional ways to transfer data. While CBRS devices are able to communicate faster than other networked devices, some companies are slow to change because, while it is cost-effective to create the foundation for CBRS devices there is still a significant upfront cost to make the switch. 

2016 was a Big Year for CBRS

Prior to 2016, the CBRS spectrum was only used by the US government to communicate with Navy ships out at sea. During those years, no one else could access the frequency band and military communication was completed on fast and secure lines. The FCC, however, came to the decision that CBRS technology would do great good if it was opened to the public in three tiers of communication. In April 2016, the FCC opened up a lot of that spectrum for private use which created a new way for companies and corporations to communicate using CBRS devices on their private networks. 

The FCC and the SEA handle the regulation of this new frequency band in order to ensure that there is no interference on the spectrum and that new CBRS devices are being documented and that their broadcasts are all occurring in acceptable locations.  

Three Tiers of CBRS Usage

The FCC released CBRS for private use in three tiers. The entire spectrum (3.55 GHz to 3.7 GHz) is shared amongst those tiers, and the tiers are incumbents, priority access licenses (PALs), and general authorized access (GAAs). The incumbents are those who used the spectrum before 2016, and they have priority access to the spectrum. The other two tiers are what came about from these changes, and the three tiers operate on the CBRS spectrum by carefully sharing the frequency band.

  • Incumbents are VIP users and have access to the entirety of the frequency band. They are protected against interference from the other tiers, and the regulatory committees are hard at work to make sure their signal is as strong and clear as it was before 2016.
  • Priority Access Licenses are given out in auction and these licenses give the corporation a slice of the spectrum up to 3.6 GHz. Licenses are given out in three-year increments. The bidders on this tier are most often big service providers, and the licenses are very expensive. 
  • The General Authorized Access tier is meant for the general public. This, in essence, means that users can utilize the spectrum at any frequency if and only if there is no nearby use from either of the other tiers. 

The GAA tier has opened up a lot of possibilities for commercial CBRS devices that can provide connectivity in a new and different way. These devices will allow for CBRS in the hands of the public, as well as an increase in communication between CBRS and non-CBRS devices. 

Spectrum Access System (SAS)

The SAS is a regulatory system of incredible importance. It is in charge of managing and assigning the spectrum band across all tiers of CBRS users in order to maximize connected devices while evading any interference. This system is the command tower that assigns unique radio channels to every single device that’s using the CBRS spectrum so they can all communicate at the same time. 

The Future of Decentralized Wireless Networks

Networks are everywhere, and as technology grows so must their means of transport. CBRS devices are creating new ways for us to communicate on every scale. 

Decentralized wireless networks were given life in 2016 when CBRS was released to the public. These networks function by selling hotspots to their users rather than building and maintaining all the infrastructure on their own. This new kind of network has given rise to a potential new way for the general public to communicate that is entirely backed by CBRS. There are, however, difficulties inherent in that structure. CBRS devices have also drawn the interest of major wireless companies and businesses all over the United States. This technological development has fueled countless advancements in the communications industry, and it is just getting started. 

CBRS in Major Wireless Companies

All the major wireless companies in the United States are going after CBRS and Verizon has, recently, made the biggest waves in that industry. They have just secured a slice of the PAL tier of the CBRS spectrum, and we weren’t lying about those auctions getting pricey. Verizon spent over $40 billion to be able to utilize both the PAL and GAA tiers of the CBRS spectrum. They are using the CBRS spectrum to bolster their own 4G LTE and 5G networks. 

The bandwidth used in the United States has skyrocketed in the recent past, and it is only going to keep increasing. Because of that, Verizon and other major networks are struggling to keep up and have turned to services like the CBRS spectrum to hold the line. 

Helium and their Networks

Helium is a communications company working to create a decentralized network where each hotspot on its network is owned and operated by a person. These hotspots are available for sale and double as crypto miners. Helium, to incentivize their customers, created a cryptocurrency that is mined on their network as a reward for hosting a hotspot. In simple terms, Helium hotspots serve as passive income to those who purchase them as well as being the building blocks for Helium’s worldwide network. 

Helium has two networks, one of which utilizes the CBRS spectrum. Their first network is a LoRaWAN network, which is a low-power, wide-area network. This network is designed to connect the internet of things, which encompasses every device that has a connection to the internet. This network is primarily for businesses and corporations as a way to transfer their data. 

Helium’s other network is a 5G CBRS network that is currently being constructed by Helium. It operates independently from its other network, and these new hotspots, while more expensive, promise larger rewards from those who purchase them. Helium is working to create a large decentralized communications business to provide a new way for people to communicate on a mobile broadband connection. 

CBRS in Business

Businesses are using CBRS devices in order to connect their devices with greater speed and security. Places like hospitals, warehouses, manufacturing plants, retail, and much more are creating private networks where they are able to communicate with one another. This also allows businesses to create a network where before there was no coverage, especially businesses that have plants in the middle of nowhere and would not be able to get a strong connection on a major wireless network. 

The scope at which businesses operate also makes them unoptimized for the way that major wireless networks are created. Since it is often a concentrated stream of data in a small location, creating a network specifically designed for that kind of data transfer is very good for businesses. 

Key Takeaways 

CBRS devices have the potential to make big waves in the communications industry as the CBRS network becomes widely used across the United States. Before you go, here are a few of the key takeaways from this article.

  • CBRS devices are able to interface with the CBRS spectrum. The great majority of new devices are compatible with CBRS
  • The OnGo Alliance is working to create applications and solutions for CBRS technology, allowing more businesses to utilize this spectrum. 
  • There are three tiers of CBRS users, and each tier must yield to the higher tiers to ensure there is no interference on the network.

There is a lot of potential for CBRS to grow in the United States.

Sara Nuss
Sara Nuss is a journalist from Pittsburgh, PA that specializes in wireless, dewi, phone plan advice & blockchain.
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