Confirmed: T-Mobile to launch unlicensed LTE at 5 GHz, possibly next year

It looks as though T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) will be one of the first carriers using License Assisted Access (LAA) in the 5 GHz spectrum band, possibly as early as next year.

That plan emerged earlier this week in a report by Macquarie Research analysts Kevin Smithen and Will Clayton reassuring investors about T-Mobile's future network capacity. They said that after having met with T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray, they expect T-Mobile will use LAA "extensively on the 500 MHz of 5 GHz spectrum, with handsets becoming available at the end of 2015."

A spokesperson at T-Mobile confirmed the plan to use 5 GHz unlicensed technology to FierceWirelessTech, although the timing remains unclear"Unlicensed LTE is emerging as a promising technology and it is complementary to Wi-Fi and compatible with VoLTE," the company said in an emailed statement. "This new form of LTE, once matured, will enable utilization of the 5 GHz unlicensed bands. As Neville has spoken to previously, we are always looking at different technologies to bring additional benefits to our customers and this is more of the same."

Ovum analyst Daryl Schoolar, a Fierce contributor, said he was not surprised to hear of T-Mobile's plans to use LAA at 5 GHz given its spectrum position compared with other operators. It's worth noting as well that the industry's move to use LTE in the unlicensed 5 GHz band, backed by some of the industry's biggest vendors, has developed on a faster pace than is typical for new technologies. "It's accelerating very quickly," he said.

LAA-LTE is expected to be deployed mainly in small cells. Schoolar said he would expect commercial products likely to be ready for deployment by the fourth quarter of next year. The extra boost that unlicensed 5 GHz can provide is attractive for operators. "It's like doing your laundry and finding a $50 bill in someone's pocket," he said.

Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) began championing so-called "LTE-U" or unlicensed LTE back in November 2013, before the 3GPP switched to the term "License Assisted Access." 3GPP renamed U-LTE to LAA to stress the point to government spectrum regulators that the use of LTE on a secondary carrier in an unlicensed band would be accompanied by a licensed primary carrier, FierceWirelessTech previously reported.

Not everyone has been behind the move to use LTE in unlicensed spectrum, as some alleged LTE does not belong there, and there are conflicting views on how the use of LTE in unlicensed spectrum will affect carriers' plans to use carrier-grade Wi-Fi.

In a blog post last fall noting the industry's switch from LTE-U to LAA-LTE, Paul Mankiewich, CTO for Cisco's Mobility division, said Cisco is supportive of the LAA-LTE initiative and is participating in 3GPP standards work on the topic. However, LAA-LTE doesn't replace carrier grade Wi-Fi, and it's "vitally important for the industry that the LAA-LTE standard ensures fair usage of unlicensed spectrum with all other technologies using the same spectrum like Wi-Fi," he wrote.

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