wireless towerABI Research predicted in a recently released report that unlicensed and shared spectrum is attracting startups in addition to mobile network operators. The firm sees a U.S. market for unlicensed and shared spectrum that will reach $1.7 billion during the next five years based on technologies such as LTE Unlicensed, MulteFire and Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS).

The drivers are expanding current demand and anticipation of 5G. But much must happen for the market to grow, however. A battle has been unfolding during the past couple of years over the conditions under which mobile network operators (MNOs) will get access to unlicensed spectrum. How this plays out will impact investments in equipment and services and likely will influence the evolution of the shared spectrum sector.

The mobile industry wants to take advantage of unlicensed spectrum. The problem is that its equipment was developed under the assumption that it would not have to compete with other users. Acting as a “good neighbor” on unlicensed frequencies – to alternately transmit and back off when appropriate and not overpower other users – is complicated and requires sophisticated sensing and timing mechanisms. MNO must develop these capabilities.

There have been alternately cooperative and contentious negotiations between the cellular and unlicensed ecosystems about the technical requirements of these systems. To this point, the Federal Communications Commission has taken a mostly hands-off approach. It wants the parties to work out the issues on their own.

Mobile carriers are interested in the spectrum as a way to cut costs. On a deeper level, “densification” of networks is an important driver. 5G will be based on very high frequency spectrum. This means that a generation of small cells will be added to networks, and unlicensed spectrum is seen as a way to efficiently and economically connect them. ABI suggests that neutral hosts and enterprise and private networks also will be drivers of the overall market.

The report, which is entitled Network Evolution in Unlicensed and Shared Spectrum, suggests that different approaches to unlicensed spectrum are optimized for different use cases. For instance, LTE-Unlicensed/License Assisted Access (LTE-U/LAA) is good for mobile network operators (MNOs), while MulteFire and CBRS are optimal for the distributed antenna systems (DAS) sector.

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