Verizon, T-Mobile can still get time-to-market advantage with LTE-U despite delay, analysts say

Even though the timeline for deploying LTE-U equipment has been pushed back while the Wi-Fi Alliance finalizes a coexistence test plan for LTE-U and Wi-Fi, Verizon and T-Mobile US could still benefit with a time-to-market advantage over LAA, analysts said.

The Wi-Fi Alliance now estimates a final test plan will be released in late September. Vendors like Qualcomm and Ericsson and carriers like Verizon and T-Mobile have complained that the process is taking too long, while the Wi-Fi Alliance said it's a multi-industry effort and a technically difficult process involving LTE-U and Wi-Fi stakeholders.

Both Verizon and T-Mobile have said they want to deploy LTE-U, which uses licensed and unlicensed spectrum. Verizon has said it's disappointed by the Wi-Fi Alliance's lack of progress in finalizing the coexistence test plan, while T-Mobile executives recently met with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's legal advisor Edward Smith to discuss their frustration with the pace of the process. CTO Neville Ray said during the company's first-quarter earnings call that in terms of getting solutions into the market in 2016, the light is "dimming there a little" from a regulatory perspective.

Proponents of LTE-U early on in the process said part of the reason they wanted to deploy LTE-U is it would be available before LAA, which would take a long time to finalize in standards bodies like 3GPP. LTE-U was developed and promoted outside of the usual standards process, which is one more reason it sparked controversy. LAA is part of 3GPP's specifications work that looks due to be completed in mid-2017.

Peter Jarich, VP of consumer and infrastructure at Current Analysis, said any delay in getting LTE-U out the door closes the window a little bit more on the value proposition of not waiting for LAA. However, when asked about the timing, he posed this question: When was the last time you saw anyone being conservative on planned standards completion or commercialization?

Even if all goes well through the standards process, things inevitably slip, and even if T-Mobile and Verizon thought LAA was right around the corner, it's in their interests to push LTE-U as a hedge, he said. 

On the time to market advantage, analyst William Ho of 556 Ventures said he sees an opportunity for the operators to improve their network data traffic performance. "With supplemental unlicensed spectrum carrying the data load, it can only help the end-user experience," he said. "Of course, having the network ready means nothing if the devices aren't LTE-U or LAA capable. Seeding the technology into handsets require in some cases device upgrades which may push real use into '17."

Given the current timetable for finalizing the test methods, Ovum analyst Daryl Schoolar said he doesn't see how Verizon and T-Mobile could deploy LTE-U until very late in 2016 at the earliest. That doesn't give it much of a head start over LTE-LAA, thus killing one of the original advantages of LTE-U. But, he added, "I wouldn't be surprised if whatever Verizon and T-Mobile do deploy isn't software upgradable to LTE-LAA." If it's upgradable, that would potentially give the operator a 6- to 9-month head start in deploying and monetizing it.

Qualcomm, a big proponent of LTE-U, has publicly complained more than once about the pace of the Wi-Fi Alliance coexistence work. Last week, Qualcomm Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Dean Brenner said in a statement that the company is disappointed with continued delays in finalizing a LTE-U/Wi-Fi test plan with the Wi-Fi Alliance.

Qualcomm was also less than impressed with the substance presented by the Wi-Fi Alliance staff its most recent workshop, which he said "lacked technical merit and was a sharp departure from Wi-Fi Alliance staff past presentations and views and from the view of any other standards body or regulator around the world."

"This whole process has gone on for more than a year, and no new technology for unlicensed spectrum, which is supposed to be available for permission-less innovation, has gone through vetting this long or this extensive. We believe that it is time to end the validation process, and deem the original test plan final so that the public can experience as soon as possible the improved services that LTE-U will provide," he said.

The Wi-Fi Alliance has its supporters, too. A spokesman for WifiForward, a coalition of public interest and consumer groups, equipment makers and others with members like Comcast, Google, Boingo Wireless, Republic Wireless, Broadcom and Time Warner Cable, said WifiForward will continue to collaborate with all stakeholders to produce an effective LTE-U coexistence protocol that best serves the needs of the estimated 250 million U.S. Wi-Fi users. 

"T-Mobile and Qualcomm are the very companies that asked for the unusual arrangement of developing an LTE-U protocol outside of the standards bodies that have long worked on other major wireless technologies," the WifiForward spokesman said in a statement. "It's surprising that now that these companies have gotten their wish, they are opposing their own process before even waiting to see the outcome and evaluate it based on the merits. A brief one-month delay doesn't change the fact that the Wi-Fi Alliance coexistence effort is significantly more streamlined than other comparable standards processes. The best way forward is for companies to continue to actively participate in the Wi-Fi Alliance process through completion before jumping to conclusions."

According to an ex parte filing, Wi-Fi Alliance President and CEO Edgar Figueroa and Vice President of Marketing Kevin Robinson spoke by phone with FCC staff last week, saying that while there remains work to be done, the outlook is positive.

The test plan currently includes an evaluation of devices' ability to operate in the presence of other devices operating at each of three different signal levels. Stakeholders agree on two of the three signal levels but there is no consensus on what the third level will be – that is yet to be resolved, and some other work packages remain to be done.

Once the test plan is finalized in late September, at least one neutral test laboratory will be qualified to execute the testing, and LTE-U vendors will be able to initiate equipment testing, according to the alliance. After the test plan is released, the Wi-Fi Alliance intends to remain available to maintain the test plan but it does not plan to be involved with the testing's execution. Instead, it will encourage vendors and service providers to test their own LTE-U products using the Wi-Fi Alliance test plan.

For more:
- see this Wi-Fi Alliance filing (PDF)
- see this T-Mobile filing (PDF)

Related articles:
Wi-Fi Alliance: August target for coexistence test plan with LTE-U could slip into September
Qualcomm gets green light to test LTE-U with T-Mobile
Qualcomm gets permission to test LTE-U at two Verizon sites

Article updated July 6 with additional comment from WifiForward.