A Big Week in the LTE on Unlicensed Spectrum Battle

Carl Weinschenk
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The long and winding road toward cellular carrier use of unlicensed spectrum took three steps this week. Whether those steps are forward, backward or sideways is unclear, however.

The topic is contentious. Cellular companies currently use licensed spectrum, which is expensive. Unlicensed spectrum is open to all, and is dominated by Wi-Fi. Indeed, the fact that the unlicensed spectrum is free, and freely available, is one reason that Wi-Fi has thrived.

There is no legal reason that cellular companies can’t use unlicensed spectrum. The problem is that their technology grew in a landscape in which cellular companies had sole rights to the spectrum they used. Therefore, techniques enabling sharing of spectrum as a “good neighbor” never evolved. The ongoing issue is whether the Wi-Fi sector and the cellular players can work out a mutually suitable approach or whether it will have to be mandated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The major news this week was the release of a test plan by The Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA). That’s good news to those who want to see the issue resolved. The bad news is that there was grousing on the part of the cellular players, though they supposedly helped prepare the test regimen, according to Computerworld:

In announcing the test plan, WFA said its development was a cross-industry effort and incorporated ideas from both sides. But LTE-U backers, including Qualcomm and an industry group called Evolve, have charged multiple times that the process took too long and was slanted toward Wi-Fi. WFA's first workshop took place last November. Carriers have eyed limited deployments of LTE-U this year.

The jury is still out. The Evolve site has a short statement saying that the test plan is being reviewed. The Qualcomm site doesn’t mention the test plan’s release. Based on the two groups’ reaction in the past, the tea leaves are not positive. Of course, comments should be considered in a political as well as technical context.

The second piece of news this week is that Qualcomm has asked the FCC to approve a year’s extension to its LTE-U tests with T-Mobile in Washington, California, Nevada and Texas. The tests, in the 5 GHz frequency band, involve small cells and mobile devices. They are aimed at testing equipment and are only in the downlink mode, according to WirelessWeek.

Qualcomm also wants to test the Wi-Fi Alliance’s test plan at a T-Mobile facility. That, according to the story, could be more noteworthy:

While the extension itself may seem unremarkable, the continued commitment to use the Wi-Fi Alliance’s test plan is notable given Qualcomm’s vocal misgivings about the validity of recent iterations of the plan.

It is fair to point out, however, that a possible rationale is to be able to compare results between the tests and those using the Wi-Fi Alliance recipe.

The third piece of news in a busy week in the LTE-U world is that cable industry consortium CableLabs and Liberty Global – a company with cable roots – have joined the MulteFire Alliance. MulteFire aims to help LTE seamlessly use unlicensed spectrum.

Commentary on the move at FierceCable suggests that recruiting cable-oriented organizations is a reasonable goal for MulteFire, which was started last year by Qualcomm. The story said that other new members are SpiderCloud Wireless, Athonet, Baicells and Casa Systems. The latter is a vendor with many cable relationships.

A lot happened this week in the universe of organizations sparring over the conditions under which LTE will be allowed to use unlicensed spectrum. What isn’t completely clear is whether that is any closer to happening.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.


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