HOPE X: Citizens Band Microwave Spectrum And Free Internet For All


The bulk of HOPE X was the talks, but arguably the far more interesting aspect of thousands of hackers and tinkerers under one roof is talking to everyone about what they’re doing. One guy hanging out at HOPE gave a quick lightning talk to a few people about something very interesting: something the FCC is pushing through that’s open to just about everything: it’s the FCC’s new CB radio service (you’ll want to click the presentation link at the very top of the page), giving anyone, not just people with a radio license, access to a huge swath of microwave spectrum.

The short version of the talk was the fact the FCC is extremely interested in opening up 100 to 200 MHz of spectrum at 3.5 GHz. The idea is to create something like cellular service that can either be implemented by companies, or normal, everyday people. The initial goal of this is to provide -possibly- free Internet to anyone with the right USB dongle. Since it’s just radio, and open to everyone, just about anything can be implemented.

This is something the FCC, Google, Microsoft, and a whole bunch of startups are extremely interested in, and the fact that about half of the spectrum will be open to anyone creates some interesting opportunities. A community-based freenet of wireless Internet links becomes an easy solution, and since the hardware to access 3.5 GHz is similar to other hardware that’s already available means building your own wireless ISP could be relatively easy in 12 to 18 months.

A transcript of the lightning talk is available below.


These days when you mention the FCC to the hacker community or the DIY community, net neutrality is what they think about. This has nothing to do with net neutrality. What we’re talking about is a radically new way of doing internet service providers. What makes it radically new and different is a few things. The first is a proposal the FCC is very seriously and intensively developing right now, and the other is that it is a new frequency band with strange new business relationships in the frequency band.

This is legally and technically citizens band radio. Some of you might be users who are over 50 and remember CB radio from the 70s and truckers talking and it’s not at 27 MHz; this new form of wireless communication is at 3500 MHz or 3.5 GHz, so this is in the microwave portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

It’s called the citizens broadband radio service, or CBRS, and those of us who are hearing this or reading this who are radio amateurs will recognize the number 97 as FCC Part 97 – this is in Part 96 of the FCC regulations.

The FCC calls this the Innovation Band, and what they mean by that phrase is that they have really thrown the doors open to new applications, new service providers, and individuals to do creative things with this radio spectrum. The chairman of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, has said this proposal could unlock vast opportunities for wireless in areas like energy, security, and financial services. I pointed out in the beginning that this was unusual. This arrangement is very strange, and he acknowledge that. He said we should not flinch from this opportunity simply because it is not standard operating procedure.

The citizens broadband radio service is a nationwide network of small microwave cells. This is similar to WiFi access points, but in a completely new frequency band using technology that’s much more advanced than what is available in WiFi today. This service will be operated by a mix of licensed wireless carriers, or the kinds of companies we all pay a fee to each month to our cellphone or Internet service, and general public CB operators without individual licenses. They will be together in the same radio spectrum. Right now this band is 3550 to 3650 MHz. That means a 100 MHz wide band, however part of the proposal would be to increase this band and make it go as much as 50 to 100 MHz higher. So there’s a possibly of 150 MHz, 200 MHz, or even higher amounts of spectrum.

This is a very generous allocation of spectrum, keeping in mind nobody is making radio spectrum any more. God made all of it during the Big Bang. It’s very difficult to get any and normally companies bid millions of dollars at auctions for licenses to use radio spectrum. This band will essentially be completely new to the public. It is currently used – the main user is Navy radars. The Navy operates radars along the coast, but it is the opinion of the people who are doing the engineering on this that this will not be a big difficulty in this, simply because of the physical distances involved and the characteristics of the Navy radars.

The frequencies that these wireless ISPs and wireless operators will use will be assigned in real-time by a third-party provider. This is called the Spectrum Access System Administrator. The FCC sees several companies being authorized to allocate the service. They’re going to monitor the use of frequencies all across the country, and then when you want to use it, your device or your network will receive an instruction either directly or indirectly from this administrator to tell you what frequency to use. And Google is all over this. Google wants to provide that service. They already provide a similar service called the TV whitespaces – those are TV channels that are not used in rural areas, so they can be used for WiFi backhaul.

There are mainly two classes of license in this service. The PAL which stands for Priority Access License are commercial wireless carriers who are bidding for wireless frequencies in auctions in those places where there are more people who want licenses than licenses available. Potentially tens of thousands of licenses will be auctioned. The other license is GAA or General Authorized Access, which is the general public who operate without licenses who will share the spectrum with licensed carriers. Microsoft has said the GAA spectrum is their main interest. Essentially, Microsoft is pushing for the unlicensed public network mode of use.

One of the things that has come up is how much information will be collected. Microsoft and a few other companies are saying only a very minimal amount of information should be collected about who is using this and what they’re using it for and where they are. They should limit the amount of information about how much information administrators should collect.

What is this going to be used for? Well, the FCC has virtually no opinion on that subject. Basically, they say a citizens broadband wireless network user, that is anyone with a laptop with a wireless dongle or any access point that uses this is an authorized user if that equipment has been authorized by the FCC. They may render any kind of communication service, commercially, sell internet access, not commercially, use it for your family or friends or community or school, there’s no restriction on content.

So if people want to follow this, find out what’s going on, there’s two things to know. One is the name of it. That is the Citizens Broadband Radio Service, if you want to Google that. The other is the FCC proceeding number, the docket number, and it’s 12-354. That’s the number of the proceeding at the FCC. This thing is moving much faster than proceedings typically move through the FCC. They can take years and years, and after a few years nothing happens and the FCC cuts it down and says it’s too old. This happens all the time. This is not that. This is moving quickly. In 2013, the FCC not only put out the proposed rules for the requirements the end-user devices must meet, but also held two public workshops that were filled with people doing public presentation – companies like AT&T, Verizon, Quallcom, Google, Sony, and more, and startups were piling in and lobbying the FCC to get a piece of this action. And very fortunately public oriented groups like the EFF, Public Knowledge, and the New America Foundation, Free Press, are pushing for the GAA, the free access, which we hope will be preserved when the FCC makes a final ruling on this, which I expect will be about one year from now.

<Question> When will I be able to buy a piece of hardware with this?

What the FCC is being told is that companies are very eager to jump into this market, and some of them make equipment that is very similar. Some of these are not American companies, but I anticipate that within perhaps three to six months after a final decision from the FCC, which I expect to be summer of 2015, and more likely by the end of 2015. This is actually a huge undertaking. We’re talking about a nationwide network of totally interconnected hardware with a spectrum access administrator, they have to be certified, they have to be monitoring the spectrum. I have to be honest with you: this could take a few years, but in many, many years of my tracking FCC proceedings, I have never seen the excitement level I’m seeing.

Most of [Bennett Kobb]’s career has been with the FCC. Not as an employee, but as a trade journalist covering the agency for trade publications. He’s also written a few books which are handbooks of spectrum allocations. They’re used very widely in the FCC and the Air Force, and the NSA. The address the books were shipped to at the NSA was “Door Number 1, 2, or 3”.

20 thoughts on “HOPE X: Citizens Band Microwave Spectrum And Free Internet For All

  1. What exactly is so good about it? I understand it’s a new band, but why not use 2.4GHz, 5GHz, 900MHz, etc.? What is so good about 3.5GHz? The things you listed in the article, like a “totally interconnected hardware with a spectrum access administrator”, could be done with 2.4GHz standard equipment and openwrt/dd-wrt.

    Forgive my ignorance.

      1. Those bands are all already allocated.
        According to the FCC chart I have, which might be a year or two out of date: 2.4 GHz is amateur and several other services (and heavily used), 900 MHz is amateur and radiolocation (also heavily used), 5 GHz is aeronautical radiolocation.
        I’m surprised they’re looking to re-allocate 3.5 GHz, as it’s also allocated for aeronautical radiolocation. Maybe no one is using it.

    1. This would be a great basis for municipal wireless Internet if those weren’t illegal in my state (where comcast is based).

      Other than that, think of it as WiFi, but designed more as a networking infrastructure instead of a bunch of wireless routers. It’s the same, but…different.

        1. Fuck off. Municipal internet access (wireless or not) is far superior to for-profit commercial ISPs. That it’s illegal due to lobbying and free-market cronyism is disgusting.

        1. Not technically illegal in every place. In most places, it’s a provider agreement. A city or town signs a deal with Comcast to provide cable/internet in return for being exclusive to the area. In most cases, at the end of the contract, the town/city *could* say, ‘fuck you comcast’ and roll their own internet provider.

          In Pennsylvania, it is illegal for any municipality (except Philly, because they were working on something before this became law) to provide municipal wireless internet. Illegal. This comes from the state legislature. Municipalities’ hands are tied on the matter.

          This, of course, is because the former mayor of Philly ran for governor, got a few campaign contributions from Comcast, and this law was pushed through the legislature.

          To be a fly on the wall during those conversations…

    2. What exactly is so good? It’s spectrum that is going to be dedicated to telecommunications over long distances and public (like roads – it has restrictions). It will be a hub and spoke layout similar to cellular towers.
      Why not use ISM band? Because it would make my WiFi and potentially all the WiFi in my town worse if I installed a CBRS transmitter on top of my house.

  2. “The initial goal of this is to provide -possibly- free Internet to anyone with the right USB dongle.”

    How’s that going to work? This is an interesting idea for a public WAN, but who’s going to pay for the interconnect into the actual Internet, at useful speeds and traffic levels?

  3. Sounds like it has all sorts of exciting possibilities, which of course means it doesn’t have a chance of hell in happening, but I’m sure some big corp. will buy us the bandwidth and give us something else to spend $100 a month on.

  4. I would love this. I have thought about making my own telco for a while now, as cell phone companies are the biggest price gougers since… I don’t have a good analogy here, but just imagine a hacker based cell network… It would need some work, but this is very exciting news

  5. Hey, thanks to Brian and the Hackaday crew for transcribing my HOPE X rant.

    To respond to some of the interesting comments on this post:

    1. No this is not Obama going to give 300 million Americans free Internet. We can get off that train right now.

    2. Why do this? First, there is a need for backhaul spectrum to connect base stations (cell sites) to telco and ISP facilities, where today this is done with wirelines (often fiber). So CBRS would be an alternative.

    More generally, there is a constant drumbeat in Congress and FCC that the telecom industry needs more spectrum. This CBRS is one answer to that pressure. Spectrum is a valuable asset, companies always want more. But where will more come from?

    Answer: From federal agencies’ own spectrum holdings. But the government spectrum will not be turned over wholesale. Instead, government and non-government will share. CBRS will share between Navy radars, certain satellite systems, and the new PAL and GAA (CB) users.

  6. Interesting. I just read the proposal, and though I’m surely missing a lot, I at least noticed a few sentences, extracted here:

    General Authorized Access (GAA) users would be required to use only certified, Commission-approved Citizens Broadband Radio Service Devices (CBSDs) and register with the Spectrum Access System (SAS). Consistent with the proposed rules governing CBSDs, devices operating on a GAA basis would be required to provide the SAS with all information required by the rules – including operator identification, device identification, and geo-location information – upon initial registration and as required by the SAS. GAA users would also be required to comply with the instructions of the SAS and avoid causing harmful interference to Priority Access Licensees and Incumbent Access tier users. Similar to unlicensed operations, GAA users would have no expectation of interference protection from other Citizens Broadband Radio Service users.

    My takeaways: There’s a central Spectrum Access System, an authority that allocates frequencies. You’re required to register with it, and provide your personal identification to the central authority in order to make your certified device work. Entities may choose to pay to become a “Priority Access Licensee”, and judging by the entities submitting comments on the proposal, those “Priority Access Licensees” will be the big cell phone, cable, Internet and telecom companies. Maybe I’m too cynical, but I wonder if they aren’t viewing this as another way for them to sell us subscriptions? That’s not necessarily an awful thing, but it’s not necessarily great news, either.

    I also have a comment about the remark in the HaD article saying that this is “giving anyone, not just people with a radio license, access …”. Amateur radio licensees have access to 3300-3500 MHz already. Yes, you need a license, but it’s almost trivially easy to get. It only requires passing a simple 35-question multiple choice test, where you’re allowed to look at all the question pool and answers in advance. The license is cheap (approx $15 exam fee), lasts ten years, with free renewals thereafter. It allows you to build your own transmitters, or operate transmitters you purchase or modify, with very few limits on usage, transmitter power, antennas, or modulation schemes. There’s no morse code test, nor any other test of skill or practical experience. Anyone who allows the license to be a barrier must not have wanted access that badly, anyway.

    Granted, this new spectrum allocation will have more standardization and structure than the old amateur allocation, which may make it easier to find other stations to communicate with usefully. But if some hackers want to play around with digital communications in a similar band, a nearby playground is already available today.

  7. Erm… if nothing else, mightn’t the new band have greater range at the same power and better weather-immunity since so much energy in the 2.4ghz range goes into heating water molecules?

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