Despite the evident benefits of LTE-U, there is one major obstacle to its deployment: The 5GHz band where it will operate is already being used for Wi-Fi service, and providers of Wi-Fi like cable companies have raised concerns that the new technology will interfere with the performance of Wi-Fi hotspots. In particular, they worry that early versions may be deployed without sufficient safeguards against interference with other users of the band. As one critic put it, “Like a rude talker at a dinner table, these early versions [of LTE-U might] simply talk loud enough to make it hard for [others] to be heard.”
There is really nothing to be gained by improving the performance of wireless service if it comes at the expense of Wi-Fi, which virtually all wireless phone subscribers also depend on. In the long run, the viability of any new unlicensed technology depends on its ability to coexist peacefully with other services that use unlicensed spectrum.
Fortunately, today’s technology offers new ways to avoid conflicts between multiple users of the same spectrum band that can make more intensive use of the spectrum possible. Proponents of LTE-U note that the standard includes several “etiquette protocols” to ensure that it operates politely by seeking the least congested bands to use and by sharing existing spectrum fairly when a band is congested. In fact, LTE-U advocates argue that LTE-U has been designed to be as good or better a neighbor to Wi-Fi than adjacent Wi-Fi nodes currently are to each other. They also note that LTE-U is likely to be deployed initially in locations like offices and on corporate campuses where cell signals are often weak. Commercial customers are unlikely to welcome any technology on their premises that disrupted their existing Wi-Fi networks.
Perhaps what is most noteworthy about LTE-U is that it blends licensed and unlicensed spectrum use in a novel way. Opponents have attempted to portray LTE-U as an unwarranted intrusion into the unlicensed domain by large, licensed operators. Supporters point out that the fundamental concept of unlicensed spectrum is that it should be open to everyone as long as they play by established rules, and that erecting special regulatory barriers to LTE-U to delay its deployment would violate the notion of permission-less innovation that has been a key rationale for designating portions of the spectrum for unlicensed uses. Unlicensed has always been a place for experimentation and innovation and it would be unfortunate to abandon this policy just to avoid a hypothetical problem.
Meeting the ever-growing demand for wireless data connections will require increased capacity through robust growth of both licensed and unlicensed spectrum technologies. But one cannot evolve in a vacuum at the expense of the other. Since LTE-U offers a means for enhancing the mobile experience of millions of consumers and could become part of the solution to a looming spectrum crunch, it deserves an opportunity to prove that it can coexist peacefully with Wi-Fi.
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