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), Telia Company , 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. 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