Five things you should know about unlicensed LTE

The idea of cell networks sharing channels with Wi-Fi has raised some alarms

lte u demonstration

Mingxi Fan, vice president of engineering at Qualcomm, remotely demonstrates LTE-U at a briefing in Verizon's Innovation Center in San Francisco on Sept. 24, 2015.

1. It's the spectrum that's unlicensed, not the LTE.

The acronyms are flying: LTE-U, LAA, MuLTEfire. They're all forms of LTE tweaked to send signals over unlicensed frequencies, which are open to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and any other technology that plays fair. Carriers could use it as soon as 2016 to add frequencies without spending billions to license them. At first, unlicensed LTE will only be used to supplement a carrier's own bands to make downloads faster. Later, it might send traffic both directions and even be used by enterprises that have no licensed spectrum.

2. Unlicensed LTE should improve cell service.

Mobile users in crowded spots like stadiums and busy street corners have to share channels, which can slow down their connections. Sometimes shifting to a Wi-Fi hotspot helps. But if a carrier uses unlicensed LTE, its subscribers get access to more channels without even having to change networks. Also, LTE often can get more performance out of a given size channel than Wi-Fi does.

3. Some Wi-Fi companies think it will slow down wireless LANs.

Google, the Wi-Fi Alliance, and some cable companies and consumer groups say LTE doesn't use spectrum the same way as Wi-Fi because it was designed to use licensed frequencies. As a result, it might not give Wi-Fi users a fair chance when there's competition for a channel. And if things get really crowded, LTE subscribers can go back to the carrier's licensed band, while Wi-Fi users don't have that escape route. Some critics even say mobile operators might deliberately hurt Wi-Fi performance so consumers would use their service instead.

4. Some experts think Wi-Fi will be fine.

Qualcomm has demonstrated unlicensed LTE working without harm to Wi-Fi. There's probably no reason why the new technology would unduly affect wireless LANs nearby, according to Tolaga Research analyst Phil Marshall. Part of the problem is a culture clash between Wi-Fi people from the IT world and LTE folks from the carrier culture, analysts say. Also, cable operators using Wi-Fi for mobile coverage naturally clash with their archrivals, the telecommunications carriers.

5. It's probably just a matter of time before the two sides make a deal.

Despite some strong language from both sides, everything's negotiable, Marshall said. Each side just has to make enough concessions to satisfy the other, and carriers will be able to start rolling out unlicensed Wi-Fi without major objections. In fact, the Wi-Fi Alliance laid out guidelines for coexistence at a workshop in Silicon Valley this week that was intended to be the first of many aimed at reaching a consensus. Someday, unlicensed LTE may be just another network.

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