LTE, Wi-Fi camps need to cooperate, not collide, on LTE-U/LAA

Monica Alleven, FierceWirelessTech With both T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ) moving forward with plans to commercially launch LTE in unlicensed spectrum bands, it seems only apropos that the cellular and Wi-Fi industries take the opportunity to collaborate and work closer together.

There is precedent for wireless industries to come together on big-picture solutions, like combining Wi-Fi and cellular in handsets and configuring devices for Wi-Fi calling. Let's not forget, the Wi-Fi industry also had to work with the Bluetooth community to make sure these two technologies would work together, and at least in some circumstances, the two are practically besties.

One reason the Wi-Fi industry has been so successful is the way in which it shares the spectrum. There's a "listen before talk" protocol that is applied everywhere Wi-Fi is used, even though it's not required as part of any regulation, Edgar Figueroa, president and CEO of the Wi-Fi Alliance, noted during a recent conversation with FierceWirelessTech.

It's still relatively early days for developing a standard that is broadly accepted for LTE in unlicensed bands, and discussion remains about how LTE-Unlicensed (LTE-U) and Licensed Assisted Access (LAA)  will affect other users. That process should be allowed to run its course, with sufficient time to hammer out concerns from all the relevant corners of the industries.

Interestingly, it's been possible in the past for vendors to make gear available to the Wi-Fi community for evaluation before it's released into the public--but historically, that's been Wi-Fi gear, not LTE-U or LAA gear. Thus, "we're kind of in a new era," Figueroa notes.

Elsewhere, I've also heard some assertions that services will work better when LTE uses the unlicensed spectrum, with reports of a 60 percent increase in spectral efficiency over IEEE 802.11n Wi-Fi. Of course, there are both supporters and skeptics.

Some point out that LTE operators are talking about using unlicensed spectrum while they charge a pretty penny for LTE services: They're going to make even more money off it, yet they don't need to pay anything for using the spectrum that's often being used by Wi-Fi. On the other hand, it's not as if no one ever has used Wi-Fi to make money; high-end hotels, for instance, charge for Wi-Fi even though that's a really, really irritating practice for a lot of guests.

We are entering an era where connectivity is invisible--meaning the end user doesn't know what technology is being used to connect him or her--and as Figueroa points out, the cellular and Wi-Fi industries can use this as an opportunity to work closer together to bring that experience about.

Certainly, it's not a leap to say that as the world moves toward 5G, more and more technologies are going to need to play nice with one another. The way things stand today, the Internet of Things is far from settling on one standard or protocol. That's not to suggest that 5G is going to be a dumping ground for a bunch of different technologies--that would not be good for anybody. But it's a pretty safe bet that 5G will consist of more technologies than 4G.

It goes back to making sure nobody unduly infringes on somebody else's right to access the unlicensed spectrum, a point that the Wi-Fi Alliance has made since it released its statement in February. "Our hope is that we can have a cordial discussion about the best way to share the medium, to share 5 GHz in a way that's fair," Figueroa told FWT. "We're kind of just starting out with that conversation with folks like 3GPP."

Real collaboration--not just talk--can happen, and the timing makes sense. With network functions virtualization (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN), a lot of the lines between technologies are getting blurred. The end user just wants a connection, and they don't care if it's wired or wireless, Wi-Fi or LTE. Of course, they might acquire an interest if they find their connections don't work, or don't work as intended. Either way, everybody in the industry will need to make greater efforts at cooperation.--Monica