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Amazon seeks FCC’s go-ahead to test mobile broadband devices in Silicon Valley

Alan Boyle
Motorola is already experimenting with CBRS technology, which could be applied to broadband workplace communications. Now Amazon wants to test CBRS systems as well. (Motorola Photo)

Amazon is seeking the Federal Communications Commission’s approval for a six-month test of mobile radio devices and networking software – but not at its Seattle home base.

The experiment with Citizens Broadband Radio Service, or CBRS, would take place in Sunnyvale, Calif. That’s the Silicon Valley city where Amazon’s Lab126 product development subsidiary is headquartered. Lab126 played a key role in creating devices such as Amazon’s Kindle ebook readers and Kindle Fire tablets (as well as the not-so-successful Kindle Fire phones).

CBRS uses a slice of the electromagnetic spectrum that was originally set aside for U.S. government communications. Four years ago, the FCC began a process to open up the spectrum – ranging from 3550 to 3700 MHz in the 3.5 GHz band – for sharing with commercial users for wireless broadband applications.

The CBRS band is expected to be easier to use than other parts of the spectrum. It could enable local data transmission at speeds that are better than Wi-Fi, and should play well with 5G.

Motorola is already experimenting with CBRS for a two-way radio service known as MotoTrbo (pronounced “Moto Turbo”), under the terms of special temporary authority granted by the FCC. Other telecom companies are eager to jump in as well. Eventually, CBRS could be used to facilitate voice and data services in workplace environments ranging from hospitals to schools and sports stadiums.

It’s not clear what kind of application Amazon has in mind for its CBRS experiment. We’ve reached out to Amazon for comment, and will update this report with anything we hear back.

The latest filing for special temporary authority, submitted last Friday, says Amazon wants to conduct the six-month test near its Sunnyvale facilities to “determine whether to continue and expand its research” into CBRS applications at other locations. Amazon wants start the test on Aug. 19 and end it on Feb. 19, 2020.

The test would involve giving out up to 50 prototype mobile devices and assessing the performance of those devices – as well as the temporary base stations that link them together. The devices would be collected from the participants after the test.

Amazon says that it “does not propose to conduct market studies or provide communications services under the experimental authority.” The company also promises to act swiftly if the test results in interference for other radio users.

For what it’s worth, the lead Amazon representative listed on the application is Omar Zakaria, a senior engineering manager who’s been involved in wireless communications, Internet of Things applications and consumer products including Amazon Echo, Fire tablets, Fire TV and the first Fire phone.

As hush-hush as Amazon’s CBRS project is now, it used to be even more hush-hush. Last November, IEEE Spectrum reported that the initial application was filed on behalf of a venture called Chrome Enterprises LLC, and covered locations in Cupertino and Tracy, Calif., as well as Sunnyvale. The application listed coordinates that were close to, but not exactly on top of, Amazon facilities.

One set of coordinates happened to land on a massage parlor that’s about three blocks away from a Lab126 satellite building in Cupertino. “Perhaps even massage spas in Silicon Valley feel the need to stay on the cutting edge of technology,” Mark Harris, the reporter who wrote the story for IEEE Spectrum, joked at the time.

Who knows? If the test in Sunnyvale works out, maybe the masseuses and masseurs in Cupertino will get prototype mobile devices as well.

Hat tip to Mark Harris.

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