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The 3GPP is in heated discussions about LTE in unlicensed spectrum, with operators split between those that want to take advantage and those worried about their WiFi investments.

Why Some Operators Think LTE-U is Rude

Sarah Thomas
5/5/2014
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LTE-Unlicensed is an innovative new technology with a lot of potential -- or potential for concern, depending on which operator you ask.

LTE-U, or the ability to use 4G LTE wireless technology in unlicensed spectrum, first proposed by Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) and Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) in December, has caused an unprecedented rift within the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) , according to a behind-the-scenes blog from Tom Peters on the International Telecoms and Media Law blog.

Verizon Wireless and China Mobile Ltd. (NYSE: CHL) are apparently all for it, while AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and many other operators involved in the standards organization were less than thrilled. (See Jury Still Out on LTE-Unlicensed.)

It's easy to see why -- AT&T has a huge investment in WiFi hotspots that could become less valuable if LTE takes over, but Verizon hasn't made the same bets. In fact, it's never made much of a fuss about WiFi at all. The operators were also concerned, Peters says, that a focus on LTE-U would distract from completing Release 12 of LTE specs.

The technical concern with LTE-U, as Peters describes it, is that LTE is a "rude" technology. WiFi includes a "politeness protocol" that LTE lacks, meaning that WiFi will back off if it senses interference from other users. Eventually rude ol' LTE operating in WiFi's polite bands could take over the band.

The 3GPP called another unofficial meeting in January to discuss concerns around LTE-U, which also included the potential effect on the value of licensed spectrum, the need for international harmonization of the unlicensed bands used for LTE-U, and whether the technology would be for downlink only or uplink as well. The group met again in March, primarily to work out timing for the new technology's deployment.

Peters says that, as of the last meeting, operators that now support LTE-U, in addition to Verizon and China Mobile, include NTT DoCoMo Inc. (NYSE: DCM), T-Mobile US Inc. , Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT), TeliaSonera AB (Nasdaq: TLSN), and China Unicom Ltd. (NYSE: CHU), as well as most major vendors happy to use their infrastructure for new purposes. Those opposed include Orange (NYSE: FTE), Telefónica SA (NYSE: TEF), Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD), Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S), Southern Communications Services Inc. , U.S. Cellular Corp. , and Dish Network LLC (Nasdaq: DISH).

I've also asked many operators and vendors in the industry about LTE-U, and responses have ranged from trepidation to excitement for those who had never heard of it, since it's still in the R&D phase. Ruckus Wireless Inc. (NYSE: RKUS) CEO Selina Lo, for one, said bring it on -- it's good for service providers and enterprises alike, while Aptilo Networks AB CEO Torbjorn Ward warns it's a solution in search of a problem.

"I think LTE on unlicensed sounds like a good idea if it wasn’t for the fact that there are 4 billion devices on WiFi out there," he told Light Reading earlier this year, noting that 802.11ac can already run at a hundred megabytes per second, so there's little need for the LTE boost. "I think when it comes to unlicensed, you can do a longer range with LTE, but I don’t see the full benefit."

Another vendor, Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), which supported Qualcomm's proposal to the 3GPP, says, why not? "The future evolution of LTE is a very efficient user of spectrum, and you can fundamentally get more capacity out of it than what can generally be done with WiFi straight up," Alcatel-Lucent General Manger Mike Schabel said in a January interview. "If we can do carrier aggregation across disparate frequencies in LTE then why not add that as an additional plug?"

These are the kinds of questions the 3GPP will continue to work on answering when it meets next month in Nice, France. In the meantime, check out Peters' full article, which is an interesting look into the complicated process of introducing a new technology, as well as a blog on our site from Richard Thanki, which delves into the competitive considerations of LTE-U.

It's a complicated technology both from a technical perspective and a business model view, but it's another evolution to keep an eye on as the operators continue to advance their network strategies.

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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MordyK
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MordyK,
User Rank: Light Sabre
5/5/2014 | 3:25:12 PM
Re: Goin' for broke
A Muni WiFi style deployment that rides on existing small cells and public safety gear with just fequency support added, is something I envisioned when I first got wind of LTE-U.
Mitch Wagner
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Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
5/5/2014 | 2:36:28 PM
Re: Goin' for broke
Even if LTE-U creates technology problems, it will still end up being deployed if it offers significant other advantages. That seems to be just the way the technology industry works. 

Does LTE-U offer any inherent advantages over WiFi to balance out its rudeness? Greater range or bandwidth?

SarahReedy
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SarahReedy,
User Rank: Blogger
5/5/2014 | 12:38:21 PM
Re: Goin' for broke
Is that something the 3GPP can do through standards -- modify it to be polite? The industry might not wait on standards to implement, but I imagine that's one goal the 3GPP is working towards.

Dean Bubley predicted on Twitter that someone would "probably hack LTE stds & do an unlicensed-band unofficial non-carrier version & then if there's available LTE-U chips for devices, how long before we'd get unlicensed "community 4G"?
fgoldstein
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fgoldstein,
User Rank: Light Sabre
5/5/2014 | 12:23:45 PM
Re: Goin' for broke
Rude behavior can lead to congestion collapse, as unreadable messages are retransmitted, causing more traffic, causing more unreadable messages, etc.  Recall the history of the Internet before everyone adopted VJ Slow Start, and likewise fear the growth of UDP streaming.

LTE was designed for reserved, clear bands.  If you're going to modify to tolerate interference -- necessary on unlicensed frequencies -- then you should modify it to be polite.  WiFi is incredibly valuable, and isn't going to surrender.  Nor would the public tolerate loss of unlicensed use -- unlicensed is the more efficient future, not more exclusionary licensing.
SarahReedy
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SarahReedy,
User Rank: Blogger
5/5/2014 | 11:57:54 AM
Re: Goin' for broke
Yeah, even with all the disagreement over LTE-U, it's interesting that the conclusion was they just need to work out the timing. Can't stop innovation from happening, even when it's not operator friendly (and it usually isn't).
kq4ym
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kq4ym,
User Rank: Light Sabre
5/5/2014 | 11:51:41 AM
Re: Goin' for broke
It's hard to see that unlicensed spectrum can remain that way for long. With the growing technical capabilities and competitiveness of the industry, it would seem only in a short time, the need for either regulation or lots of industry cooperation to keep the frequencies clear and useable.
SarahReedy
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SarahReedy,
User Rank: Blogger
5/5/2014 | 11:05:20 AM
Re: Goin' for broke
That's true. LTE-U will be more expensive, at least initially, to implement. I also fail to see where it's really necessary. You might need the extra boost for video downloads or intensive streaming, but the operators, including Verizon, were already working on that with "turbo-boost" tech over LTE only. Is this more effective or, at least, cost effective?
mendyk
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mendyk,
User Rank: Light Sabre
5/5/2014 | 10:59:45 AM
Re: Goin' for broke
A lot will depend on service cost. Right now WiFi has a big advantage on that count as far as end users are concerned. But that's right now.
SarahReedy
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SarahReedy,
User Rank: Blogger
5/5/2014 | 10:29:06 AM
Re: Goin' for broke
I agree. It's interesting that the lines are being drawn between operators early on to. How much they have invested in WiFi determines how interested they are. I wonder if Verizon wnill look like the smart one for holding off after this is all said and done.
mendyk
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mendyk,
User Rank: Light Sabre
5/5/2014 | 10:26:49 AM
Goin' for broke
The battle between WiFi and LTE-U camps will be fun to watch. Evolution will require WiFi to get rude or get pushed aside.
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