Alcatel-Lucent steps away from 'polarizing' debate, touts blending of Wi-Fi, LTE

There's a lot of talk about LTE-Licensed Assisted Access (LAA), or LTE-Unlicensed, but Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) says there's no reason to wait for LTE-U. With the launch of its "Wireless Unified Networks," or WUN for short, at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, the vendor is blending the upload and download capabilities of Wi-Fi and cellular technologies to offer faster download and upload speeds and extended network range.

It represents a step in the industry to stop treating Wi-Fi and cellular so differently. "At the end of the day, the end user doesn't care," said Michael Peeters, CTO of the Alcatel-Lucent Wireless Division, in an interview with FierceWirelessTech. "They all just want a great wireless experience. We see great value in breaking [down] that wall and stepping away from the polarizing debate that we've had in the past six months on LTE-U… the debate that you have on voice over Wi-Fi versus voice over LTE--we can get excited about it, but to the consumer, it's just noise."

WUN, which sounds like "one," encompasses two separate capabilities that blend data signals from Wi-Fi access points and cellular radios, such as small cells, to simultaneously leverage the upload and download capabilities of each.

Initially, the vendor is making available what it calls a unique capability that uses Wi-Fi and cellular to enhance the Wi-Fi performance. "Wi-Fi boost" combines the downlink of Wi-Fi with the uplink of cellular and it offers "Wi-Fi boost plus" as an option to combine the downlink of cellular.

Wi-Fi is a great technology for streaming video and downloading huge files but its Achilles' heel, if you will, is the uplink, Peeters said. Alcatel-Lucent will conduct a trial with the Wi-Fi boost capabilities in the second quarter of 2015, with commercial availability expected in the second half of 2015.

Another phase involves enhancing communications even more with LTE-U, or LTE-LAA, which improves the spectral efficiency. "We are strong technology advocates for LTE-U as well," Peeters said, adding that it will be showing at the booth how LTE-U can be "polite and friendly" in the presence of existing Wi-Fi networks.

To accelerate the introduction of LTE-U, Alcatel-Lucent is introducing new LTE-U-capable small cells. Peeters notes that LTE-U still has a number of adoption barriers to cross, such as finalizing the standardization process, new handsets and access points. "What we're saying is this will still take some time," he said, but there are other flexible ways to have Wi-Fi and LTE work together without having a polarization between spectrum users. "You can already use them together today, and there's a big benefit to using them together today with a Wireless Unified Network," he said.

Last fall, Peeters warned that 5G should not become a technology dumping ground, as it appeared the industry was throwing everything but the kitchen sink behind the term.

Has anything changed? "There's a lot of cool technology out there," he said. But he's seen more and more people calling things 5G when they are already standardized or ongoing in Release 13. "I'm not sure if things are actually getting better in the ecosystem as a whole. The marketing train has left the station," he told FierceWirelessTech.

"I'm going to continue to be as realistic, as concrete as possible," he added, noting that the research arm of Alcatel-Lucent, Bell Labs, will be showing a number of items related to 5G during MWC, but it isn't launching anything at MWC that it is calling 5G. "We think it's critical on the road to 5G, but it's not 5G because [they] are available today and in trial today."

In other MWC news, Alcatel-Lucent is demonstrating how operators can use its network functions virtualization (NFV)-based virtualized radio access network (vRAN) solution to meet customer and environmental demands. Alcatel-Lucent's vRAN was installed at MWC in support of the demonstrations at its booth, as well as at the stands of technology partners Intel and Telefonica.  

Alcatel-Lucent's vRAN will be available for customer trials this year and for commercial operation in 2016.

Alcatel-Lucent also announced that it will provide Canada's Telus with its Enterprise Small Cell device, one of the first deployments of Alcatel-Lucent small cells resulting from its partnership with Qualcomm Technologies.

Designed to extend LTE, 3G and Wi-Fi connectivity and coverage into offices and other buildings, the "first-of-its-kind" Enterprise Small Cell device launched in September 2014 and features a chipset from Qualcomm Technologies.

Telus will use the Enterprise Small Cell to improve connectivity inside offices and other densely populated buildings.

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