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The hottest item at Mobile World Congress won't be for sale

Stephen Lawson | Feb. 19, 2016
Unlicensed spectrum will play key roles in 4G, 5G and IoT.

Cell tower, telecommunication
Cell tower, telecommunication tower Credit: Emilian Robert Vicol / Pixabay

In Barcelona, you really can buy happiness. (It's called Iberico, a delicious Spanish ham.) But you can't buy unlicensed spectrum, and yet it's going to be the hottest thing at Mobile World Congress next week.

Commercial mobile operators, which for years relied on exclusive frequencies doled out through auctions or competitions, are now looking toward bands that anyone can use. Not only is unlicensed spectrum free, it may also become available with less time-consuming red tape. And there's a lot of it.

Consumers choose unlicensed spectrum every day when they let their phones switch over to Wi-Fi at home or in a coffee shop. (Wi-Fi is the biggest unlicensed success story.) Carriers encourage this because it means less traffic on their cellular networks. But there are a lot of other ways in which cellular devices, as well as the Internet of Things, are starting to take advantage of this kind of spectrum.

Unlicensed spectrum isn't a free-for-all, but it lets innovators put new kinds of networks and devices on the air as long as they don't keep others from using the band. The frequencies are not the same  in every country, but some bands are close to universal.

Here's what unlicensed spectrum could do for you at Mobile World Congress:

Faster 5G

5G will be a hot topic at MWC, and for the major carriers and vendors that means going higher up the spectrum chart. Cellular networks have never used spectrum above 6GHz, partly because range is short up there. But the 5G promises they're making, like 100 times the average throughput of LTE, may require so-called millimeter-wave frequencies. There are big chunks of spectrum practically unused in these bands, some of which, like 60GHz, are unlicensed.

Last year, Nokia and NTT DoCoMo demonstrated a 70GHz small cell -- in a sealed room on the show floor -- that could follow a moving radio simulating a pedestrian's phone. The dial in that demo read 2Gbps (bits per second), and Nokia says since then it's reached 19Gbps with millimeter waves. 

AT&T, Verizon, SK Telecom and other carriers plan to use millimeter waves in test networks of proposed 5G technologies, starting as soon as this year. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission wants to make such bands available for mobile service and is considering a range of options, including unlicensed use.

IoT networks

Unlicensed spectrum is a key part of a challenge to cellular being led by service providers that specialize in IoT. So-called LPWAN (low-power wide-area network) technologies will be a hot topic at MWC. These networks are designed to cover wide areas and reach thousands of devices like sensors and meters without draining their batteries.


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