AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile throw support behind new LTE-U, LAA coalition

Some wireless rivals that often don't see eye to eye on wireless policy issues are banding together behind Evolve, a new coalition launched in Washington, D.C., today to promote the benefits of unlicensed spectrum and new technologies like LTE-Unlicensed (LTE-U) and License Assisted Access (LAA).

AT&T (NYSE: T), Verizon (NYSE: VZ) and T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) are among the participants in a group, which also includes CTIA, the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA), Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) and Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM).

Noticeably absent from this group are the backers of WiFiForward, which includes Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA), Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), Broadcom, NCTA, Open Technology Institute New America, Public Knowledge and Ruckus Wireless, among others. The cable industry in particular has been critical of LTE-U, saying it doesn't include the key "listen before talk" feature that LAA will feature when it becomes a standard out of the 3GPP standards development organization.

The backers of Evolve and the older LTE-U Forum say they don't want to wait for LAA to become a standard; LTE-U can meet the demands for better broadband much earlier. Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T are all conducting trials with LTE-U either this year or early next. Commercial handsets that support LTE-U could be available in the market by mid-2016.

Dean Brenner, senior vice president of government affairs for Qualcomm, stressed during a call with reporters and Evolve members today the unity on display by the diverse group of Evolve members -- big and small companies that compete with one another and usually don't agree on public policy issues. However, they're all coming together to promote the "tremendous performance benefits" offered by LTE-U and LAA. The 5 GHz unlicensed spectrum is defined with "permission-less innovation" in mind, meaning that new technologies should be encouraged to leverage unlicensed spectrum to drive the mobile market and deliver better wireless service to consumers, sooner rather than later. 

He said LTE-U already incorporates a 3GPP standard from Releases 10, 11 and 12 of LTE, adding co-existence features to make sure there's no negative impact with Wi-Fi. Meanwhile, LAA is being designed to meet more European and Japanese sets of regulations. 

Verizon created the LTE-U Forum along with Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, LG Electronics, Qualcomm and Samsung in 2014. David Young, vice president of public policy at Verizon, said the company is excited about bringing a better broadband experience to its customers, who also depend on Wi-Fi every day. Interoperability and fair coexistence were critical requirements from Day One, he said.

"We just don't want to get behind the eight ball on the testing side in lieu of having a debate on the policy side on whether or not there needs to be approval for the technology," said CCA President and CEO Steve Berry. "I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time here. I think we can continue to test and continue to focus on assuring the coexistence capabilities and we can also move forward" to deploy the technology as quickly as possible.

He said fair coexistence is a priority and there are many techniques incorporated into the technology to ensure that. Unlicensed spectrum has been the "sandbox" of innovation for a long time, and the CCA wants to keep it that way. Consumers expect their connections to work and they don't care if it's LTE-U or Wi-Fi, he said. 

Steve Sharkey, director of chief engineering and technology policy at T-Mobile, noted the carrier's leadership in offering voice over Wi-Fi, an important service to its customers, but LTE-U also is a big part of continuing to improve services for customers to strengthen the wide area network and meet demands for data, especially while looking at new ways of delivering video to consumers and in dense urban areas. LTE-U provides an opportunity to meet those requirements and do it in a way that doesn't impact Wi-Fi, he said.

Members of Evolve are trying to head off any efforts the FCC might take to more closely regulate technologies introduced into the unlicensed spectrum. In a blog post last week, CableLabs pointed out that LTE-U is being developed outside of the 3GPP, even though the same companies in the LTE-U Forum are active in 3GPP, and LTE-U is taking a different approach to coexistence, "using a carrier-controlled on/off switch known as 'duty cycling' instead of reliably fair listen-before-talk. LTE turns on to transmit for some time determined by the wireless carrier, then switches off for some period of time, again determined by the carrier. It is during this 'off' period that other users such as Wi-Fi can have the chance to access the channel."

Brenner said weekly calls with the Wi-Fi Alliance are being held, as well as workshops and other ongoing events to answer questions of the Wi-Fi community. "We are talking to everyone," he said.

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