Wireless Service

What is CBRS? The Radio Service for the People

Kyle Reyes
November 21, 2022

CBRS is a new radio service that is making waves across many different communities. Doors are opened and opportunities abound with the relaxing of the regulations regarding the use of radio frequencies within the United States. The regulations in place allow for businesses and corporations to make use of these radio waves, where before they were limited to the big businesses (such as  the US Navy) to use them. 

These new policies allow other businesses to apply for certain bandwidths of radio frequencies. In this article, we will discuss what it means for businesses and corporations to have access to radio frequency bands, the opportunities, and the challenges within. If you are curious about CBRS, read on!

Citizens Broadband Radio Service

Not this radio! CBRS is a bandwidth that’s opened up for more businesses to use. 

The Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) is a band of radio frequencies that has recently been released for public use. Before we go any further, rest assured that not anyone can use these radio frequencies. People (or businesses) have to apply for a slice of the frequency band, and the allocation of frequencies to businesses, corporations, and people is very closely monitored to ensure that there is no interference with different people using the same frequency. This section will cover what it means for the CBRS to now be available for this public use as well as how this technology has already been implemented! 

Network Availability with CBRS

CBRS, like all of our wireless communication, runs through radio frequencies. These frequencies are closely monitored by various organizations all over the world. For instance, in the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) works tirelessly to make sure there is no interference along the information that is sent and received along the radio waves. The availability of these frequencies is what’s driving DeWi networks to have a go at creating a new kind of market for telecommunications. 

Companies like Pollen and Helium are able to transmit information over specific frequencies on the CBRS band through what they’ve been allocated by the FCC. Their networks are entirely different from the current norm of networks like Verizon, which have thousands of cell towers and antennas over the United States. The network availability of CBRS lets these companies take one of the slices and keep them for their own use rather than relying on another company to transfer their data to where it needs to go. 

There is a lot of data being transmitted back and forth, all around the nation and the globe. This transmission requires networks to bolster their connectivity and increase the maximum volume of data that their network can handle. CBRS frequencies are allowing companies to experiment with different ways to transfer that data.

CBRS Weaves an Intricate Web

While it is a great win for CBRS to be out and available for general use as it is now, there is a reason that radio frequencies have been so closely monitored and controlled in the past. Interference is a major problem with radio waves. To regulate the use of CBRS the government has created the Spectrum Access System (SAS) which monitors what frequencies are allocated to which companies and which are available for use. Geography also plays a role in this! 

You may have noticed, when driving and listening to the radio, that at some point the radio station to which you are listening starts to cut out and get replaced by another one (likely the station in the area you are traveling to). That is because there are radio waves being broadcasted on the same frequency at acceptable distances from one another. There is likely only a small zone where there is interference, but that is an example of interference! It is pretty debilitating to the message being sent. 

For that reason, SAS keeps a lot of eyes on the distribution and use of radio frequencies. If, for example, those two signals were being broadcasted from the same location that radio frequency would be a garbled mess. 

Radio Waves for Small Companies

There are a variety of cases where CBRS is used by “small” companies to create more efficient communication. 

  • 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

These radio waves let companies communicate quickly and efficiently on secure channels. There are two major reasons that people use CBRS. 

  • CBRS-based wireless coverage covers 4x the area that Wi-Fi does! It does so at slower speeds, but that increased distance allows CBRS networks to sprawl over huge areas. 
  • CBRS networks also open up the ability for users to have several networks around the same area. Since they all have distinct frequencies, people and systems using these networks are able to communicate quickly with no fear of interference. 

Helium and CBRS

CBRS radios are a way for information to travel the same way that antennas can transfer information over other bandwidths. Helium has two major networks operating on the CBRS frequencies. They have a network connecting IoT devices as well as a 5G network that may, someday, become an alternative to cellular companies. 

Helium is a decentralized wireless network that is working to create a nationwide network that uses crypto to do something practical. People purchase their miners and hook them up in their homes, and then the miners work as Helium’s hotspots. They take some of the bandwidth from the home’s internet and spread out a net of radio frequency just like cell towers do. The hotspots handle local traffic and verify the network’s strength, and then the owners are rewarded with a cryptocurrency from Helium! 

How Helium Uses CBRS

Helium uses CBRS as the frequency their hotspots use to transmit data. Users can use indoor or outdoor CBRS small-cell radios to participate in providing 5G cellular coverage in their area. CBRS is key to Helium’s structure as users are able to create little networks with their miners wherever they are. Helium has a lock on a certain frequency band in the United States to ensure that all of its hotspots are functioning without interference all across the country. 

CBRS radios and Helium Hotspots

Helium’s CBRS radios connect to their hotspots, turning that network of coverage into something that is approaching Wi-Fi. This is a major goal for Helium, as with the growth of their network people can start using these radios to cover their homes and businesses on CBRS and create an area where everyone has a strong connection. The average person is very used to an extremely fast signal. The current network’s technology is able to support incredibly traffic-heavy activities like streaming UHD video, and Helium has to make sure that its network can handle that heavy-duty streaming in order to incentivize users to switch. 

Outdoor Small Cell Radios

Helium’s outdoor small-cell radios are stronger and boast larger signals than their indoor companions. These radios are specially tuned to withstand the elements and keep a strong signal regardless of the weather, but they are larger and require more work to set up and activate. They must be installed above ground level and users must register them with the SAS in order to operate them. Helium recommends hiring a professional for the installation to ensure that it is secure, in a good location, and meets the regulatory requirements of the area. 

Indoor Small Cell Radios

Helium’s indoor small-cell radios function on the CBRS network and work well when installed in small buildings like cafes, grocery stores, and homes. These radios are much easier to install and operate, similar to a Wi-Fi router and modem. Using these radios is a great way to create a small area of 5G coverage on Helium’s network and can be used in conjunction with a Helium hotspot. This technology is much more recent than Helium’s miners. Multiple small-cell radios can all connect to the same hotspot, but more radios have higher and higher chances of diminishing the bandwidth available to each one, slowing their speeds. 

CBRS and DeWi Networks

Decentralized Wireless networks change up the rules of the game by putting the power in the hands of the individuals. 

The accessibility of CBRS allows the existence of decentralized wireless networks like Helium and Pollen. These networks function in an entirely different way than networks have up to this point, and it is all due to CBRS. Companies can create their networks on the Citizens Broadband Radio Service and use that network in whatever capacity they desire. Decentralized wireless networks are, however, oftentimes working on large scales. Networks like Helium and Pollen are working to create worldwide networks. Helium has impressive coverage on multiple continents. 

These examples are made possible by decentralized wireless networks and, in the United States, CBRS. For better and for worse, a lot of power is put in the hands of the people. Something like Helium could never happen if it was built from a centralized network like Verizon. 

What is a DeWi Network?

A decentralized wireless (DeWi) network functions by selling its hotspots to its customers in order to create a network where all of these hotspots function like mini cell towers, providing comprehensive coverage over areas as large as the whole world. There is so much less infrastructure necessary to support these devices, as many are the size of little boxes that fit on your windowsill, plug into an outlet, and chug along using the same amount of energy as a lightbulb. 

One major hurdle is — how do DeWi networks get their customers to purchase these hotspots? Helium, one of the first DeWi networks, decided on crypto. They have a cryptocurrency (HNT) that they reward to everyone who has a hotspot up and running. An incentive-based system like this is key in getting customers onboard and having them purchase these little hotspots that are all stacked together to create a nationwide network. DeWi networks have the potential to create a network where the data is much cheaper than we are used to, at least in the states. Their network functions where users pay for exactly how much data they are using each month, and everyone pays the same going rate for data consumed. 

Using a DeWi network for wireless coverage has a lot of potential but they have a long way to go before they can compete with the telecommunications giants that have nestled into the marketplace in the United States. Only time will tell if DeWi networks become a thing of the future, or if they struggle to get off the ground. 

Helium’s DeWi Network

Helium’s DeWi network works by incentivizing its users to purchase their hotspots by rewarding users when they support the network. There are two major ways that Helium rewards its users for owning and operating a hotspot, or “miner.” When data is transferred using their hotspot they are rewarded with a bit of HNT, as well as when their hotspot is involved in one of their network checks. 

One of the hurdles of a DeWi network is that there is no guarantee that their nodes will continue functioning. Anyone could decide to disconnect their hotspot for a variety of reasons at any time. Helium’s ongoing mining is one way to counteract this, because these miners are, once they are up and running, generating passive income. Helium also keeps a hawk’s eye on their network, sending frequent “challenges” to active hotspots that send test data back and forth along all the nearby active miners. This challenge allows Helium to keep up-to-date data on Helium Explorer that shows the strength and density of its network all around the globe.

CBRS versus Wi-Fi

There are a number of differences between CBRS and Wi-Fi, but both of them are used in middle-tier operations. This is to say, bigger than a house, but smaller than, for instance, a city. Many commercial operations use dedicated Wi-Fi or CBRS networks for their staff to optimize communications, but now there is a big decision as to which one is better for the company and its workers. 

Wi-Fi offers a lot of standard benefits. It is a very popular service for small to mid-range operations. Businesses like restaurants, grocery stores, and airports have all transitioned to having Wi-Fi available for guests and clients in response to the smartphone that just about everyone is carrying on their person. Wi-Fi is great for businesses to extend to consumers because it is unlikely that any consumer at one of these businesses is going to need to be hyper-optimized. This differentiation is coming more into focus for operations happening within the business. There are a lot of businesses where lightning-fast and secure communication would allow them to complete a wide variety of new tasks. 

CBRS, either 4G LTE or 5G, can enhance the speed that devices can communicate with one another. This technology makes private networks much more affordable and worthwhile for companies, and lets these businesses add coverage and capacity tailor made for them. The huge range of CBRS devices is another great effect of using CBRS, as companies can send data over huge distances with fewer access points bouncing the information along the line. 

At the end of the day, companies don’t need to switch from Wi-Fi to CBRS if their current setup is working well for them. Wi-Fi works really well for most companies, and if there are no problems there isn’t a need to go through the structural changes to create a CBRS network for the company. 

Key Takeaways


CBRS is big, and working through all of the information before you is daunting. Enjoy this puppy! We hope that this article has answered many of your questions about CBRS, and we have put together a few key takeaways to refresh your memory on some of the awesome stuff you’ve read in this article. 

  • Citizens Broadband Radio Service has opened a lot of doors for companies to host private networks. 
  • DeWi networks like Helium and Pollen are working to create mobile networks that operate under a different set of rules from normal wireless companies. 
  • Both CBRS and Wi-Fi have pros and cons and the most effective service is usually on a case-by-case basis. 

Helium is trying to create a CBRS network by distributing hotspots throughout the country and then distributing routers as a way for users to both contribute to and use their decentralized wireless network.

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