As the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) investigates LTE-Unlicensed (LTE-U) technology, Qualcomm has added a new dimension to the contentious debate over the use of unlicensed spectrum bands with the introduction of a new LTE-based technology that would allow anyone -- not just existing mobile operators -- to deploy LTE in unlicensed spectrum. (See Operators, Vendors Advise FCC on LTE-U.)
Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) introduced the technology concept, called MuLTEfire, in a blog post late last week, following a keynote speech delivered by Executive Chairman Paul Jacobs at the IEEE International Communication Conference 2015 in London, where he first mentioned the technology. Qualcomm also included the technology in its response to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 's request for comments on LTE-U.
MuLTEfire is a standalone LTE option for unlicensed spectrum. That is, it operates only in unlicensed spectrum and does not require an "anchor" in licensed spectrum. It also does not require a SIM card or mobile subscription to use the LTE service in some deployment scenarios, such as at sports or entertainment venues.
This is significantly different from the other options for LTE in unlicensed bands, LTE-Unlicensed (LTE-U) and License-Assisted Access (LAA), which both rely on licensed spectrum for operation.
As such, the new technology potentially opens the opportunity for cable operators, Internet service providers or even large venue owners and enterprises to deploy their own LTE equipment in unlicensed bands, namely the 5GHz band, to provide mobile services. (See T-Mobile Expects LTE-U to Feature Listen-Before-Talk and Qualcomm Brings LTE-U to Small Cells .)
But like LTE-U and LAA, MuLTEfire will also need to prove that it will be a good neighbor and not degrade WiFi performance in the 5GHz band. Qualcomm says it has tested features that can ensure the coexistence of LTE-U/LAA and WiFi without adversely affecting WiFi, and that MuLTEfire will implement similar coexistence features. (See Why Some Operators Think LTE-U Is Rude, NTT DoCoMo, Huawei Prove LTE-U Works and Ericsson Preps LTE-U for Verizon, T-Mob & SK Telecom.)
MuLTEfire is also an attempt to make LTE small cells as easy to deploy and operate as WiFi access points. According to Qualcomm, MuLTEfire will provide "LTE-like performance benefits to more deployment scenarios with Wi-Fi-like simplicity -- a leaner, self-contained network architecture that is suitable for neutral deployments where any deployment can service any device."
Qualcomm noted in its FCC filing that the licensed-anchor versions of LTE (LTE-U and LAA) will be more robust than MuLTEfire because they use licensed spectrum to handle operations including control signaling, mobility, registration, access and acquisition, whereas MuLTEfire will use unlicensed spectrum for everything -- data, signaling and all other operations.
A boost for small cells
Qualcomm claims the technology will "create expanded opportunities for small cell deployments, especially in hyper-dense environments and indoor locations."
The announcement was certainly a hot topic of discussion at the Small Cell Forum's timely workshop on "Small Cells and License Exempt Spectrum" on Friday in London. Of particular note for some at the workshop was the notion that MuLTEfire technology could be deployed by venue owners or enterprises in neutral host scenarios.
According to Mark Grayson, distinguished consulting engineer at Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), speaking in his role as vice chair of the Small Cell Forum's network group, the Forum is looking at how to accelerate multi-operator capabilities, particularly for venues where "people are reluctant to deploy small cells."
He pointed out the stark contrast between 176 million WiFi access points deployed worldwide and 11 million small cells. "We need to talk about the multi-operator challenge to make small cells more relevant to the venues and businesses to get more [small cells] deployed," he said.
Qualcomm's MuLTEfire proposition appears to address this. According to the vendor, the technology will enable service providers or venue owners to "provide nomadic wireless access services to any end user (no subscription or SIM required)." And for mobile operators, Qualcomm says the technology can also provide new data offload opportunities.
"The biggest potential [for MuLTEfire] is about the venue owner," said Professor Simon Saunders, co-founder and director of technology at consultancy firm Real Wireless, speaking at the Forum workshop. "LTE can be a technology like WiFi."
Qualcomm's new technology doesn't make the unlicensed spectrum debate any less contentious, but it does create the potential for many more types of service providers to deploy LTE in unlicensed bands.
— Michelle Donegan, contributing editor, special to Light Reading