T-Mobile warns of delays on LTE-U as regulatory discussions continue

NASHVILLE -- A top T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) executive warned that the rollout of LTE Unlicensed technology could be delayed as regulators continue to debate the policies around commercialization of the technology.

"A continued delay is going to cause a product impact," Steve Sharkey, T-Mobile's VP of government affairs, technology and engineering policy, said on the sidelines here at the Competitive Carriers Association's Mobile Carriers Show. The event brings together CCA member companies including Sprint, T-Mobile and a range of smaller and rural carriers.

Sharkey said that much of the technical work has been finished on LTE-U, and now all that remains is regulatory approval for the devices and services. However, he said that members of the Wi-Fi community continue to raise concerns about whether the technology will impact existing Wi-Fi users in unlicensed spectrum, and said that their proposed timeline for testing and certification of LTE-U has been delayed several times.

The situation, he said, could force LTE-U supporters to delay their plans to use the technology since LTE-U devices will require FCC certification before they can be rolled out commercially.

The Wi-Fi Alliance Coexistence Task Group is working to develop a plan to test LTE-U devices to see whether they interfere with existing Wi-Fi users. The Wi-Fi Alliance late last month told FierceWirelessTech that its goal is to deliver a coexistence test plan by summer 2016. "The process is working," the group said.

However, T-Mobile isn't the only player worried about delays in the implementation of the testing process -- a process that the FCC is watching while it evaluates its plans to certify LTE-U devices. Specifically, Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC) said recently that a final test plan was to have been established in January 2016, and then April, and the company is now concerned it will not be completed until mid-August at the earliest.

Sharkey said the continued delays could impede T-Mobile's ability to roll out the technology, which it hopes to do to add capacity to its network by transmitting LTE signals in unlicensed bands.

Both T-Mobile and Verizon (NYSE: VZ) are pushing LTE-U technology as a way to improve their services by making use of unlicensed spectrum. However, there are other technologies, such as LAA, or License Assisted Access, that also promise to send LTE transmissions through unlicensed spectrum. According to Ericsson, the specs for LAA in 3GPP are expected to be completed by June, including coexistence conformance tests.

Further, T-Mobile and Verizon aren't the only carriers looking at technologies that will support LTE transmissions in unlicensed spectrum. AT&T (NYSE: T) is currently testing LTE-U technology to see if it can ensure that there is fair-use sharing with Wi-Fi.

And U.S. Cellular (NYSE:USM) is also interested in LTE-U and LAA. "We are evaluating that," said Narothum Saxena, a top U.S. Cellular network executive, here at the CCA show.

But Sprint (NYSE: S) is sitting on the sidelines, at least for now. "We don't have a need for either [LTE-U or LAA] from a capacity perspective," said Jay Bluhm, VP of network planning for Sprint. Sprint continues to point to its vast 2.5 GHz spectrum holdings as a way for the carrier to add speed and capacity to its network.

Related articles:
Qualcomm seeks STA to conduct LTE-U tests, including at T-Mobile facilities
Ericsson, Telefonica demonstrate live LTE-U
Broadcom: LTE-U as currently contemplated would be a 'disaster' for Wi-Fi
AT&T's Keathley: We are testing LTE-U but LAA is a better option