Politics, it’s often said, makes strange bedfellows. It turns out that spectrum does too. An unusual coalition that includes Comcast and other cable companies, consumer advocacy groups, and Google is facing off against T-Mobile and other cellular carriers.
At stake, the combatants say, is the future of Wi-Fi. An effort by the carriers to use unregulated portions of the spectrum to offload cellular traffic that’s clogging their networks could interfere with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and devices connected to the Internet of things, say the consumer groups and their allies in the cable industry. The carriers, they charge, would rather sell their cellular data, so putting the squeeze on free Wi-Fi is in their economic interest.
Nonsense, respond the carriers. “Wi-Fi is central to our customer experience, so co-existence is core to our desire to protect our customers’ Wi-Fi experience,” a T-Mobile exec tells me. (He asks that I not use his name.) One reason: T-Mobile’s network handles approximately 11 million Wi-Fi calls a day, he adds, so it needs Wi-Fi networks to be reliable.
Although the issue is pretty technical, involving technologies most people haven’t heard of, there’s already been some overheated coverage, such as in this Network World article: "LTE-U is coming to take your Wi-Fi away, consumer advocates warn." Even worse, lobbyists on the cable side have gotten the techno-simpletons in the U.S. Senate involved and are trying to get the FCC to step in.
I suspect the issue will be resolved by engineers on both side without serious damage to anyone. It does, though, highlight the increasing convergence of broadband, cable, satellite, and wireless business interests.
What's behind the LTE-U dispute
To address poor in-home cellular coverage, T-Mobile several years ago pioneered using the Wi-Fi network you're currently signed into to offload phone calls, a capability now used by all the major U.S. carriers on compatible smartphones such as the Apple iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy S6.
But offloading calls is different than what the carriers want to do with the unlicensed (that is, freely available) Wi-Fi and Bluetooth spectrum that has the cable companies and their allies so upset.
Modern smartphones use 4G LTE radio technology, and LTE runs on spectrum licensed by the FCC. That spectrum is filling up. Buying more spectrum is very expensive when it's even available.
That's why the carriers -- led by T-Mobile -- now want to use a version of the LTE cellular radio technology called LTE-U (the "U" stands for "unlicensed") that moves data and voice traffic normally carried in licensed parts of the spectrum reserved for cellular devices into the unlicensed frequencies that Wi-Fi and Bluetooth devices use.
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