• United States
Jon Gold
Senior Writer

CBRS wireless yields $4.5B+ for licenses to support 5G

News Analysis
Aug 26, 20203 mins

The Federal Communications Commission wrapped up five weeks of bidding on county-by-county licenses for Citizens Broadband Radio Service eyed by 4G and 5G service providers, private firms

The Federal Communicatins Commission’s auction of priority access licenses (PAL) on Citizen’s Broadband Radio Service  (CBRS) spectrum came to an end this week, raising more than $4.58 billion from bandwidth that could be used to support 5G wireless.

The 271 qualified bidders chased 22,631 individual licenses – seven for each county in the U.S., each license representing a 10MHz-wide piece of spectrum in the 3.5GHz band.

Of the 20,625 licenses that were eventually auctioned off, the most expensive were those covering urban cores. The priciest pieces of the airwaves were those in Los Angeles County, clocking in at more than $52 million each, with Chicago-area Cook County in second place at nearly $40 million per license. Other southern California population centers drew large bids, with Orange County and San Diego bringing in $27 million and $21 million, respectively, for each license.

“It appears that this level of participation ensured healthy competition in many markets, with the largest markets generally having more than 25 rounds of competitive bidding and 20 markets with 40 or more rounds of competitive bidding,” Richard Engelman, a consultant at Washington, D.C., law firm Wiley, said in a statement.

Traditionally, bidding for licensed airwaves has been dominated by the major mobile-network service providers, but the CBRS auction was far more granular, and drew a more diverse set of bidders. Enterprises looking to implement private 5G or LTE networks independent of the big cellular providers were among the hopefuls for licenses, as well as companies hoping to arbitrage spectrum holdings in the future.

The CBRS PAL licenses work somewhat differently from the usual FCC licenses for spectrum. Instead of granting exclusive access to the particular spectrum in the assigned area, the priority access license merely grants preferential status. So a PAL license-holder’s signals will take priority over unlicensed (or general authorized access (GAA) users in the area covered by the license.

The incumbent users of the CBRS band – mostly the U.S. Navy – retain priority over both PAL and GAA users. The whole setup is managed by an automated spectrum-access system that detects and prioritizes signals based on license level in a given area.

The list of which bidders won which licenses will likely be released within about a week, Engleman said.