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The battle between LTE and Wi-Fi may have left LTE-U out in the cold

Stephen Lawson | April 12, 2016
After a long fight over LTE-U, some carriers may go straight to the less controversial LAA anyway

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.

After more than a year of rancor over whether it would hurt Wi-Fi, a technology that lets LTE networks use unlicensed spectrum may have already missed its window of opportunity.

LTE-Unlicensed is designed to improve cellular service by tapping into some of the frequencies used by Wi-Fi and other unlicensed technologies. But almost as soon as LTE-U was proposed in late 2014, Wi-Fi supporters pounced. They charged that it would drown out Wi-Fi signals because LTE didn’t know how to make room for other users.

Backers of LTE-U said adding it to a room full of Wi-Fi gear caused even less interference than adding another Wi-Fi access point.

Now carriers may be getting ready to bypass LTE-U altogether in favor of another system, called LAA (Licensed Assisted Access), that does the same thing but with additional protections for Wi-Fi. The LAA standard is complete, and products are expected to start shipping later this year.

“LTE-U might be deployed, but it’s not for very long,” Tolaga Research analyst Phil Marshall said. “It’s hard to see why an operator would focus on LTE-U when LAA’s right behind it.”

Qualcomm, LTE-U’s biggest backer, is already shipping components for LTE-U cells and mobile devices. Carrier equipment giant Ericsson has a commercially available LTE-U cell feature. Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, SK Telecom and other carriers have

Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, SK Telecom and other carriers have shown interest in the technology. Verizon says it still plans to deploy LTE-U later this year. In comments made in January, a Verizon executive described that as a limited trial deployment.

But Qualcomm is also developing and demonstrating components for LAA that are due later this year, and Ericsson announced last month that its LTE-U software would be upgradable to the newer system. SpiderCloud Wireless, another vendor developing LTE-U gear, also plans to make it upgradable. Most carriers considering LTE on unlicensed spectrum are studying both technologies.

“It’s kind of a question mark whether operators will commercialize LTE-U or go straight to LAA,” Matt Branda, Qualcomm’s director of technical marketing for cellular, said last week.

LAA has two big advantages. First, it includes a “listen before talk” feature to overcome what critics call LTE-U’s biggest flaw: that it may start transmitting even if another radio is using the same channel. Second, it’s part of the official LTE standard, which carriers count on to make sure their systems work and can grow into the future.

Those pieces were needed just to get an unlicensed LTE technology approved in most parts of the world. So from the start, LTE-U was limited to a few markets, primarily the U.S., China, India and South Korea.          

 

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