A Slow Journey to LTE on Unlicensed Spectrum

Carl Weinschenk
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2016 Business Communications: Changing the Way We Work

We’ve seen a lot of back and forth during the past year on the use of unlicensed spectrum for LTE. The current users of the spectrum, mostly Wi-Fi folks, were adamantly opposed. The fear was that cellular players didn’t have the ability (and most likely, the desire) to fit nicely into an environment in which many stations are vying for capacity.

Recently, however, the two industries have cooperated to work through the issues. The third leg on the stool, after telco and the Wi-Fi sides, is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is not acting with the alacrity of the other parties, according to WirelessWeek.

LTE-Unlicensed and License Assisted Access (LTE-U and LAA), the two main ways of supporting LTE on unlicensed spectrum, became a thing a year ago: In May, 2015, the FCC asked for information on the topic. Several months later, it asked for more information. Since then, however, the commission has been mostly silent.

Tests and trials can continue, but LTE-U/LAA won’t become a business until the FCC sets real rules and regulations under which standards can be finalized, equipment designed and manufactured, and services rolled out. The ball is in the FCC’s court:

All of this makes for one very exasperating situation for U.S. operators – like Verizon and T-Mobile – who had hoped to deploy the technology in the second half of 2016. T-Mobile executives have made no secret of their frustration with the slow rulemaking process. During the Un-carrier’s first quarter earnings call, T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray said the operator is still hoping to deploy LTE-U technology this year but is beginning to lose faith that the regulatory process will allow for such a timeline.

Sniping does continue between the two sides. It is not surprising, and maybe subtly encouraging, that the sides are arguing over whether establishment of an appropriate testing procedure is going well or too slowly. FierceWireless, in a report from the INTX cable conference last week in Boston, said that an executive from the Wi-Fi Alliance pushed back against telco suggestions that the LTE-U process is bogging down.

The reason that the news is slightly good is that arguing over speed is better than fighting over whether a solution is needed and uncertainty about whether both sides will participate. If the sides were arguing over those more basic things, the implication would be that the process was further off track. Arguing over the rate of progress, conversely, implies that there is a commitment to do the heavy lifting.

The frustration with the FCC lethargy indeed must be acute: The two industries put aside traditional rivalries (the Wi-Fi side is dominated by cable operators) to work out the compromise. Moreover, the potential is great: Unlicensed spectrum can be a welcome addition as mobile usage continues to expand – and it’s free.

There is also great technical potential. Capacity Media reports that Vodacom claims to have exceeded 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps)  by aggregating licensed and unlicensed spectrum. The South African tests were performed using small cell technology and “a combination of feature enhancements,” according to the story. While there is no certainty that precise approach and results could be duplicated in the United States, the news does point to the flexibility and additional capacity that use of unlicensed bands brings to the mix.

LTE over unlicensed spectrum is coming. It is a slow process, however. Hopefully, the FCC will do what it can to pick up the pace.

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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