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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.

With unlicensed spectrum, LPWAN companies can roll out networks more quickly and less expensively, tap into mass-produced chips for devices and go international more easily. One prominent player is SigFox, which has built a network across France, supplied its technology to operators in Spain and other countries, and is building infrastructure in the U.S. It uses the 900MHz band, where there are unlicensed frequencies in many countries. Another LPWAN company, Ingenu, uses the unlicensed 2.4GHz band. Both will announce expanded coverage at MWC.

Better 4G

The 5GHz unlicensed band that's made it possible for Wi-Fi to reach gigabit speeds is so attractive that cell carriers are taking a close look at it.

Most mobile operators have already turned to Wi-Fi networks to reduce the load on their cells. But after years of refinements to the hand-off process, it can still be a chore for both subscribers and carriers, said analyst Peter Jarich of Current Analysis. The next step is to integrate cell networks into the unlicensed spectrum.

This was already happening at last year's MWC. At the time, it looked like Wi-Fi and cell operators might find ways to get cozy in this band, a huge swath of spectrum that most new Wi-Fi networks rely on. What happened next dispelled that notion.

Unlicensed LTE, the most intriguing new idea on the scene last year, is now in the middle of a storm that's just starting to show signs of clearing. It's a set of technologies that let 4G cellular networks use unlicensed frequencies in this band. Some Wi-Fi advocates say unlicensed LTE will squeeze out current users of the 5GHz band that Wi-Fi relies on. Charges have flown back and forth for months. Standard tests for compatibility may make both sides happy, but they're still under development.

Vendors aren't standing still while that gets hashed out. Verizon and T-Mobile USA, plus South Korean carriers, want to use it. At MWC, Qualcomm, the biggest unlicensed LTE backer, will be showcasing the technology in its newly announced X16 LTE modem. The X16 is Qualcomm's first to include the version of unlicensed LTE for Japan and Europe, with extra safeguards built in, along with the type that carriers in Korea, the U.S. and China are pursuing.

Those systems use 5GHz as an add-on to a licensed network. Another form of the technology, called MulteFire, is a standalone LTE small-cell network that doesn't use any licensed spectrum. The MulteFire Alliance industry group will officially launch at MWC, with member companies including Ericsson, Nokia and Ruckus Wireless.

Yet another technology, LWA (LTE-Wi-Fi Link Aggregation), would let a user connect to both Wi-Fi and LTE networks and enjoy the bandwidth of both in one virtual connection. This could be done in software and wouldn't send LTE signals into the unlicensed band. Alcatel-Lucent showed it off last year and Nokia, its new parent company, is still pursuing the technology and will demonstrate it at the show. But LTE-U is getting far more attention from carriers.


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