Wireless Service

The Ultimate Guide to CBRS Small Cell

By
Kyle Reyes
November 10, 2022

Citizens Broadband Radio Service allows a variety of individuals and companies to use a specific radio frequency to operate their own networks. Sound interesting? You are in the right place! This article will cover all you need to know about CBRS small cells, their recent addition to the public sphere, and their applications for the future. 

What is CBRS?

CBRS small cell is the foundation upon which private networks are created.

Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) is a radio frequency band that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has decreed to share among users. Allowing private users to create radio frequency bands allows them to make their own networks. Private networks are not a new concept, but the availability of CBRS will allow a much greater volume of private networks to emerge. This section will cover the basics of CBRS small cell. 

CB Versus CBRS

CB radio is the Citizen’s Band radio service. That two-way voice communication is often used in an industrial setting and is not connected to CBRS. CB radio is in the 27 megahertz band while CBRS is in the 3.5 gigahertz band. 

Radio Frequencies 

All of our wireless communication runs through radio frequencies. Mr. Hertz himself conducted the experiments which resulted in wireless communication being introduced at the end of the 1800s. Mobile communication became a norm in the 1980s in many countries and has continued developing at breakneck speeds to this day. Normally, when someone sends information along a wireless network it is happening in frequencies between 3 kHz and 300 GHz. Different frequencies are used to transport different kinds of information. 

In almost all areas of the world, there are bodies that govern the use of radio frequencies. To name a few, there is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States, the European Communications Office in Europe, and the Telecommunication Regulatory Authority of India in, well, India. A lot of planning goes in to ensure that there is minimal to no interference between multiple sources as information is sent and received along the radio waves. 

Environmental Sensing Capability and Interference

In the United States, there is a huge network of sensors known as the Environmental Sensing Capability (ESC) that detect the use of CBRS. Devices that plan on using the CBRS band reserve channels in their area. If there are free channels they get allocated to those devices for a time, then the channels are returned to the pool of open channels. This allows a disparate collection of devices and companies to use the same band at different times. 

Private LTE Small Cell Technology

Small cell technology increases cellular coverage and network capacity. CBRS small cell networks are able to broaden coverage and create a network that runs on a different frequency from common cellular networks. They are especially useful in areas where other coverage is limited. Many communications corporations are incorporating small cell technology into their products for use in both commercial and private endeavors. 

Integration of CBRS Small Cell

CBRS small cell has created an opening for the arrival of decentralized wireless networks. Small businesses and corporations can utilize that radio frequency in order to create their own network, and DeWi networks are no exception. Decentralized wireless (DeWi) networks are networks where the users purchase and implement the nodes that propagate the network’s coverage. Pollen and Helium are two examples of this kind of network, and they have a wide variety of strategies employed to incentivize people to purchase their services and set up their equipment. 

Anyone who buys and applies the network routers of a decentralized wireless company is staking a claim on the continued life of the company. They are investing. This is a high upfront purchase with high hopes of a return. Both of the aforementioned companies operate by rewarding their users with cryptocurrency that they can trade in for their wireless data. 

DEWI

Decentralized wireless networks have the potential to become a very large new kind of business going forward. Traditional communications networks rely on huge towers and antennae on the top of buildings to propagate the network, but the perfect time for something groundbreaking like a DeWi network to gain popularity is with the advent of this new technology. 5G networks are entirely different from their 4G LTE counterparts and open the door for a lot of new possibilities. 

Pollen

Pollen is a company that sells its network antennae to its customers. They are called flowers, and they do two things. Pollen operates with one currency called PCNs (PollenCoins) and network operators receive these coins when their network is used by other people. Pollen wants to incentivize customers to purchase Flowers and expand their network. This style of network means that it is much easier to create a network in a rural area than it is with a conventional communications company. 

A DeWi network is bound by the will of the people who support it, and if one of those supporters is in a small town in the middle of your state then that small town (at least the area surrounding their home!) will have a great network strength. 

Helium

Helium functions in a similar way as Pollen except that their network and the way that they incentivize their customers is a little more complicated. They got their start in the “internet of things” and have since turned their eyes to 5G so their company has divided their focus into those two things. Both Pollen and Helium have a part of their network called network validation which allows them, with roaming devices, to see how strong their network is in areas all over the globe. This data is of so much importance to these companies that they sell devices to their customers and reward them for using them, just like with their antennae! These kinds of companies are very new and as of yet relatively untested, but they walk with the goal of shaking up the communications industry and changing it with their new models. 

Current Wireless Technology

Current wireless technology allows for a wide variety of streaming and information transfer along a lot of mediums. 

Fixed Wireless Access

Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) is a very common way of providing wireless connectivity in the majority of the world. It works by providing a connection through radio links between two fixed points. Hence, Fixed Wireless Access. It allows companies to provide wireless internet access to areas without having to lay fiber and cables all the way there. Many network operators provide high-speed broadband connection to areas where the cost of laying all that fiber is crazy high. The beginnings of FWA allowed major networks to provide connections to rural and suburban areas many years ago. These technologies have been around for a while, but it is recent that they became available at such a low cost and allow such high-speed data to transfer within the network. 

Even though they are more affordable it has still challenged the development of high-speed FWA technology. One of the biggest roadblocks was the fact that this technology was replacing the technology that came before it (fiber and cable). For a long time, networks were not willing to overhaul their whole web in order to install this new technology, so it has developed at a slow rate through the years. Some of the big difficulties that FWA systems have to overcome are as follows:

  • These systems struggle with interference from weather like rain and snow. Especially networks like CBRS small cell-sized networks have a high cost to create the infrastructure required to maintain a smooth connection, especially over significant distances. 
  • These technologies use a lot of electricity. The power required to create and maintain an FWA network is very high. 

LTE

LTE, often used in the context of “4G LTE” stands for Long Term Evolution. 4G is different from 4G LTE. The LTE in the name is showing that the data the phone, tablet, or other device is using is this newest 4G network. The 4G network has evolved, well, over a long time. The network now transfers data faster and with less lag than the 4G network did when it was originally introduced. The change from 4G to 4G LTE was not a huge one, but it did shake things up enough to warrant the new title. 

4G is the fourth major communications network in the world. It has delivered a multitude of benefits. It is available almost anywhere for corporations and individuals. It supports high-speed data transfer and will continue to in years to come. It is much more efficient than 2G and 3G, requiring much less power to run and cost to implement. 

5G

5G is the fifth generation of mobile networks around the world and, when it is implemented, will boast ludicrously high speeds of data transfer around larger areas than its 4G LTE older brother. Data transmitted over a 5G network can move gigabits at a time. 5G networks will deliver faster data more reliably and be able to weather significantly more strain on the bandwidth before it starts to slow down. 5G networks are being deployed right now and will continue to grow over the years. 

5G follows the general structure of the network that came before it by operating through cell sites (like CBRS small cell) in order to send data through radio waves from anywhere to anywhere. Networks rely on a lot of areas to jump between, which is one reason why companies are creating more and more antennas on the top of tall buildings in cities and towns. 

Frequently Asked Questions 

You made it! We hope that Korgo has provided you with a bit of a cute break at the end of this technical piece. Do you still have questions regarding CBRS small cell? If so, we have answers! The operation of CBRS small cell networks is a complicated field where there are a lot of variables running about. Answering questions about CBRS will hopefully fill in some of the gaps in understanding the practical applications of this complicated network. 

What is CBRS used for? 

There are three primary uses for the CBRS spectrum. They are: 

  • Extending wireless capacity for carriers' macro networks in urban settings especially
  • Fixed wireless access (FWA) for backhaul
  • Operating private mobile networks that are used, oftentimes, in corporate settings

Who gets access to CBRS?

Just as there are three primary uses for the CBRS spectrum, there are three tiers out of which access is given. These tiers are: 

  • Incumbents are users who have used private frequencies for a long time. Two major players in this are the military and satellite communications.
  • Priority Access Licenses (PALs) are carriers who pay to license part of the spectrum, usually to bolster their own communications. 
  • General Authorized Access (GAA) are private companies that utilize a part of the spectrum for their network. These licenses often switch hands as companies need more or less bandwidth for their communication.

There are many distinct users on the CBRS. Due to this, there is a large governing body, the Spectrum Access System (SAS), which ensures that none of the parties interfere with the communications of other parties. 

What devices support CBRS small cell? 

Just about every new mobile device supports CBRS! Most of the new iPhones, Pixels, and many android phones support the CBRS, as well as laptops from a variety of big-name brands. This compatibility is expected to grow more and more prevalent as the CBRS gets more and more popular. 

Why do people use CBRS?

There are two big reasons why companies and individuals use CBRS. One is to improve large outdoor coverage. CBRS-based wireless covers a larger area than Wi-Fi does, but it does so at slower speeds. 

CBRS-based wireless coverage also gives users the ability to open several networks around the same area. This is especially used in areas where there are critical communications like in an industrial or retail setting. Employees, using CBRS, are able to communicate on private and direct lines with no fear of interference. 

How can I deploy a CBRS-based mobile network? 

Deploying a private network comes with serious challenges over, say, deploying an LTE network. Major communications companies like X-Finity, Verizon, and others are offering Wi-Fi systems that move a massive amount of data. With 1 GB plans becoming more and more common, moderately-sized businesses are able to communicate effectively off of Wi-Fi. 

For a private CBRS-based network, users require an Evolved Packet Core (EPC) to manage the network, roaming between the CBRS small cells, data management, device attachment, and identification for all of the devices. This identification comes from SIM cards and eSIM hardware, and the network must be checked with the FCC and get managed by the SAS to make sure there is no interference from neighboring networks. 

There are, however, subscription-based services (much like Wi-Fi) whose companies do most of the work to allow you to set up a CBRS network. These integrated solutions simplify the operation of one such network, but they come at a premium. 

How can CBRS be used in a vertical case? 

There are a number of situations where CBRS is used in a vertical case. 

  • Warehouses and distribution centers use CBRS to connect autonomous vehicles and robots at a greater range.
  • Healthcare centers use private mobile networks for staff to connect and collaborate using hospital-specific smartphones and other devices
  • Large public venues segment networks for backstage staff as well as to reserve Wi-Fi for guests. This allows their networks to function efficiently and without delay regardless of the overall traffic on other frequencies
  • Retail stores use CBRS to keep staff-only frequencies to ensure rapid communication regardless of mobile network congestion

Do CBRS networks use LTE or 5G networks?

Right now, CBRS networks rely on LTE transmission to function. There are steps being taken, however, to create 5G CBRS networks that will enable the transmission of a much larger volume of data from place to place. 

What is CBRS like compared to Wi-Fi?

CBRS has a different set of priorities compared to Wi-Fi. CBRS systems are often put in place to augment existing Wi-Fi networks rather than replace them. Here are some of the major differences between CBRS and Wi-Fi which helps show that they function best when both are used together.

  • A CBRS access point (AP) covers 4x more area than a typical Wi-Fi AP. 
  • A CBRS AP is much more difficult to deploy than a Wi-Fi system of equal magnitude. 
  • Installing and operating a CBRS network is significantly more expensive than operating a Wi-Fi network. 

For businesses, if they are able to function well using just a Wi-Fi network and a standard mobile network then they will likely not set up and operate a CBRS network as well. The operation of a CBRS network is saved for the businesses and operations that need the coverage and consistent speed that comes with a CBRS system.

Kyle Reyes
Kyles Reyes is a journalist from Pittsburgh, PA that specializes in the wireless industry, phone plan comparisons & advice.