By Ben Munson
MulteFire is the key to driving LTE without a license. Qualcomm's technology, which achieves the basics of LTE-Unlicensed (LTE-U) and License Assisted Access (LAA) in the 5 GHz band without needing to own spectrum, has gained support and skepticism. But will MulteFire find footing in the wireless, cable or broadband industry when it competes with so many similar technologies?
Neville Meijers, vice president of business development for Qualcomm Technologies, is a spokesperson for the MulteFire Alliance, a group founded by Qualcomm, Ericsson, Nokia and Intel in December 2015. He told FierceWireless that the final technical spec for MulteFire is on schedule for release in the fourth quarter of this year.
In the meantime, the Alliance has been busy giving one-on-one presentations to potential industry participants since the MulteFire launch event at Mobile World Congress 2016. In addition, the Alliance has held quarterly meetings similar to the open day and technical workshop recently held in Beijing.
That campaign has helped draw in new members. It recently was announced that Cisco and Neul, a wholly owned subsidiary of Huawei, would be joining the Alliance, bringing enterprise experience to the equation. In addition, SoftBank, which owns a majority stake in Sprint, is the first mobile operator to join the Alliance.
"SoftBank is interested in exploring how to leverage the technology across its different networks and businesses," said Meijers. "It's great to have an operator join. They bring a different perspective and different insight."
Though service providers like Boingo Wireless and technology companies like Baicells and Casa Systems have also joined the Alliance, it's notable that none of the major U.S. wireless carriers – with the possible exception of Sprint, via SoftBank's Alliance membership – as well as no broadband providers or device manufacturers have jumped on board with the technology. Meijers declined to speak for SoftBank, but said that, among mobile operators, opinions differ on MulteFire.
"There are operators that support the technology and there are operators that worry about the technology because it opens up a new ecosystem that doesn't require a licensed spectrum band in order to take advantage of the technology," Meijers said.
That uncertainty may extend beyond the mobile community and it may dictate the MulteFire Alliance's ability to attract more members and, ultimately, find a place in the market for MulteFire to flourish.
All of the broadband players are interested and some of them are at various stages of discussions with Qualcomm with respect to using the technology as well as potentially joining the Alliance, Meijers said.
But it's unclear who those interested parties are and, as ABI Research analyst Jake Saunders pointed out, the MulteFire Alliance will need big name support to achieve something similar to the Wi-Fi Alliance, an industry group that's cultivated a strong membership roster including Apple, AT&T, Comcast and Samsung – and which also happens to staunchly object to LTE technologies in the 5 GHz band.
"The [MulteFire] Alliance is now canvassing for additional members. It is expected the body will try to sign up as many device, infrastructure and telco service providers as possible," wrote Saunders. "If they are able to sign up cable operators and Google, who have been staunch supporters of the Wi-Fi Alliance, that would a significant indication that the MulteFire Alliance is making progress."
CableLabs, a non-profit cable industry group, has cautiously explored LTE-U but seemed somewhat unsure about the prospect of MulteFire.
"We're open to all technologies," Belal Hamzeh, director of network technologies at CableLabs and head of the company's wireless efforts, said of the MulteFire. Asked whether CableLabs would join the Multefire Alliance, he said: "That is a good question. Ask me in a few months."
So it still may be too early to gauge the cable industry's interest the technology, but Meijers said there are many companies exploring MulteFire for a variety of use cases.
"There's a growing interest in leveraging MulteFire for private networks, whether they be for access or for IoT," Meijers said. "There are a number of companies in the IoT space that are starting to look at MulteFire as a potential avenue for private networks."
Meijers also said that the device OEMs are starting to get interested. As the technical spec for MulteFire comes to a head, he said he believes we'll see more and more companies wanting to get involved.
Roger Entner, a telecom analyst with Recon Analytics, said that device compatibility will likely be the most important part of getting MulteFire up and running, adding that manufacturers may be reluctant to add another chip or antenna to their devices for reasons including detrimental effects on battery life.
Still, as the membership roster at the MulteFire Alliance grows at a modest pace, Qualcomm continues developing its unlicensed technology and finding partners to help prop up the ecosystem.
As MulteFire progresses, U.S. operators including T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless stayed away while actively pursuing implementation of LTE-U, a technology for which they're both well equipped to supply the licensed anchor.
But Meijers said some operators see the need for MulteFire in certain spectrum environments or in scenarios where they don't want to use their licensed spectrum.
"The great thing about MulteFire is if you deploy it indoors in an enterprise or stadium environment, you don't have the co-channel interference that you may have if you deployed a small cell with your own licensed band technology," Meijers said.
Meijers also highlighted the neutral host applications for MulteFire as a means to achieving LTE-like performance while serving multiple operators with a single access point. Moving indoors from a mobile operator's macro network provides a more consistent experience under MulteFire, he added, saying that the technology could help overcome the obstacles preventing LTE from being deployed more in indoor environments.
Of course, a neutral host distributed antenna system (DAS) can be used to achieve a similar LTE deployment. But Meijers said that, despite the principal being nearly the same, the economics are substantially different. A DAS leverages the same backbone and radio network but each provider has to provide separate base stations.
"Whereas with MulteFire, you're basically sharing the spectrum, backbone and the eNodeB," Meijers said, adding that the deployment timetable is also different in that operators don't have to plan in the same way as for a DAS deployment.
Patrik Lundqvist, senior director of product management at Qualcomm Research, said using a DAS can make it complicated to get as much capacity as is wanted or needed.
"We believe MulteFire is a more Wi-Fi-like deployment where you can scale the capacity with a number of access points in a much more flexible manner than DAS, which is time consuming, complex and costly to deploy," said Lundqvist.
That doesn't mean Qualcomm is positioning MulteFire as a replacement for Wi-Fi. The company is careful to point out that MulteFire, like LAA and unlike LTE-U, supports listen-before-talk to help ensure peaceful coexistence with Wi-Fi.
Lundqvist added that though Qualcomm is helping push forward MulteFire, it still has a strong, vested interest in LTE-U, LAA, enhanced LAA, LWA (LTE Wi-Fi aggregation) and Wi-Fi, and will make any and all network technologies available as soon as or soon after they become standardized.
But Meijers seemed confident that MulteFire won't get lost in the mix and that all the different technologies form together a more complete connectivity picture.
"We believe the combination of these different technologies and use of the spectrum can be structured in such a way to give consumers much better experiences across the board, whether it's capacity, app ability or quality of service, at the end of the day what we're trying to do is make the industry better and make the consumer have a better experience," Meijers said.