LTE-U: Peace in Our Time?

Carl Weinschenk
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Last week brought a relatively small step in the drama over the use of unlicensed spectrum by LTE providers. Perhaps more importantly, there appeared to be a bit of detente between the two factions battling over the issue.

The news, according to re/code, is that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved a test by Qualcomm for LTE unlicensed (LTE-U) at two Verizon facilities. The détente is a letter from the Wi-Fi Alliance to the commission saying that it had no problem with the tests – and the resulting shout out of thanks Qualcomm gave to the alliance after the approval.

Here is the background: Wi-Fi and certain other services operate in unlicensed frequency. It is free and open to everyone. Hence, it is crowded. Precise technology and protocols are followed in order to give all users a fair shot at participating.


Licensed frequency – where cellular companies dwell – is far more expensive. Once an entity leases the spectrum, it belongs to them. They pay a premium, but don’t have to worry about other users. The important point is that the technologies and procedures used in unlicensed frequencies to make the “good neighbor” operations possible are unnecessary and, therefore, weren’t developed.

The disagreement between the Wi-Fi and LTE forces isn’t about whether the cellular companies can use LTE-U. They have as much right as anyone. It is whether the procedures they are suggesting to ensure that they indeed are fitting in politely work or not. Until now, the Wi-Fi side – led by cable operators – has voiced skepticism and complained that the LTE companies have not been forthcoming with the highly technical information that their engineers need to determine the efficacy of their approach.

Clearly, the tea leaves are showing that the two power segments have chosen peaceful cooperation, at least for the time being. The FCC blog post announcing the tests, written by Julius Knapp, the chief of the Office of Engineering & Technology, suggested strongly that the agreement is for real cooperation:

The Wi-Fi Alliance, working together with advocates of LTE-U, is developing a test plan to evaluate the coexistence of LTE-U with Wi-Fi and other devices operating in the unlicensed spectrum. A draft of the plan is expected to be released early next month. Qualcomm and Verizon have agreed to participate in subsequent laboratory and real world co-existence testing of LTE-U.

At this point, the four leading wireless carriers, according to Network World’s Jon Gold, are being coy about their use of LTE-U. The day before the FCC announcement, Gold wrote that only Verizon said that it will do anything in the field in 2016. And that will only be a limited trial toward the end of the year.

Gold quotes IDC research manager Sathya Atreyam’s suggestion that the carriers may be slowing because they are less at ease with the performance of LTE in the unlicensed spectrum than they are letting on. The deliberate pace, in this scenario, is to avoid prematurely rolling out services that perform poorly and annoy subscribers.

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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