Editor's Corner—The top 10 biggest stories of 2017 in wireless tech

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Monica Alleven editor's corner

It’s that most wonderful time of the year when the staff at Fierce give you the top stories of the past 12 months. That means revisiting some of the biggest debates in the wireless tech industry and the most exciting technology advancements. We’ve ranked them below, from the 10th most important to the No. 1 most important story based on impact on the industry.

10. The first gigabit LTE: In January, Australia’s Telstra demonstrated the world’s first commercial Gigabit LTE network and device with partners Ericsson, Qualcomm and Netgear. At a launch event in Sydney, the operator announced it was rolling the service out in select capital cities across Australia. That set into motion a bevy of operators committing to Gigabit LTE in 2017.

9. LTE Advanced advances: LTE Advanced technologies finally found their time in the sun, which only makes sense given that Gigabit LTE is enabled by LTE-A features such as 4x4 MIMO, 256 QAM and carrier aggregation. Toss in Licensed Assisted Access (LAA), and a lot of operators that don’t have enough licensed spectrum to get to Gigabit LTE will be able to do so.

8. FCC OKs LTE-U: Speaking of LAA, the great fight over LAA and its sister technology LTE-U more or less came to a close, although Wi-Fi diehards are going to keep a close eye on the situation. The FCC in February announced it had authorized the first LTE-U devices in the 5 GHz band, paving the way for carriers to move ahead with deployment plans. In the end, however, LAA emerged as the standards-based solution that operators are embracing, and the one that, generally speaking, plays better with the Wi-Fi world.

7. Massive MIMO expands: The year also saw massive MIMO become a thing, and what with everybody offering “unlimited” data plans, it’s no wonder. Massive MIMO, which is considered foundational to 5G, allows operators to increase the efficiency of their spectrum, reusing the same spectrum multiple times for different users and getting more throughput from the cell than if they were transmitting to everyone at the same time.

6. FCC opens up more spectrum: It became increasingly clear throughout the year that 5G is about far more than just millimeter wave spectrum, and midband spectrum is very much part of the mix. The FCC voted to adopt a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) exploring opportunities in spectrum bands between 3.7 GHz and 24 GHz, kicking off a comment period on three specific midrange spectrum bands: 3.7-4.2 GHz, 5.925-6.425 GHz and 6.425-7.125 GHz. In November, the FCC took additional steps to make spectrum available above 24 GHz.

5. Comcast goes LoRa: The battle of IoT technologies continues, with Comcast giving a big nod of support for LoRAWAN-based technology when it announced it would be expanding its LoRaWAN-based enterprise IoT service, which it calls machineQ, to 12 U.S. markets. Comcast first announced machineQ service in October 2016 with trials in Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area, expanding to Chicago in November. This year, it said it was rolling the service out in more markets, thus giving it an IoT play to counter the standards-based IoT technologies that wireless operators are deploying.

4. T-Mobile promises nationwide 5G: Following its big win in the 600 MHz auction, T-Mobile outlined plans to launch a nationwide 5G network starting in 2019. Up until then, the “uncarrier” had been pretty mum on its 5G plans while Verizon and AT&T had been doing plenty of talking. One could argue that T-Mobile had no choice but to come up with something different, choosing to dis its rivals’ plans for a home broadband replacement to cable. T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray reiterated his disdain for the “boring” fixed wireless 5G model that Verizon is pursuing. T-Mobile is forging full steam ahead—with we’re not really sure exactly what—but with a focus on other areas, like things related to virtual reality and eyewear.

3. Verizon details 5G plans: Verizon had been talking about its 5G trials in 11 markets for much of the year, so it was gratifying to hear about some of the lessons it has learned in those trials. Speaking at the FierceWireless Next-Gen Wireless Networks Summit, Verizon Chief Network Officer Nicola Palmer said that, for example, they found that millimeter wave propagates a little better than they had thought. They’re seeing speeds in and above the 1 gigabit-per-second range beyond 2,000 feet, and while Low E glass has been a known issue, some great plug-and-play solutions are being developed to overcome that problem.

2. AT&T announces "5G Evolution:" AT&T stole headlines when it announced it was rolling out a “5G Evolution” service in some markets, prompting Twitter to light up with jabs about AT&T launching a “fake 5G” service based on the deployment of LTE-Advanced features. AT&T explained that it is an “evolution” to 5G, not something that’s going to change with the flip of a switch overnight. It’s worth noting that plenty of others are guilty of using the “5G” tag to describe pre-5G equipment or services ahead of the standard actually being completely ratified. Vendors have used the term “5G-ready” for some time, and smaller companies like Maine’s Redzone Wireless flipped the switch in January on its “5Gx” fixed wireless network in rural and suburban markets.

1. CBRS gets real: Near the start of the year, it looked like the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) ecosystem was getting along fine and things were going swimmingly. But the two Republican commissioners on the FCC had signaled their displeasure with the rules back when they voted on them in 2016, and with Donald Trump taking over the White House, the “roll-back-what-Obama-did” theme started to take hold across the federal government. The potential for change prompted calls by some CBRS stakeholders to move forward with the rules as planned. But T-Mobile was one of the early agitators for change, and by June, both CTIA and T-Mobile had filed petitions asking the FCC to change the CBRS rules to make the 3.5 GHz band in the U.S. more favorable for wireless carrier investment and harmonized with global 5G. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai tapped fellow Republican Commissioner Michael O’Rielly to lead the effort to review the rules, which O’Rielly had said from the beginning were flawed and needed to be fixed. By the end of the year, the FCC had voted on a Notice of Proposed Inquiry that seeks comments on various proposals, including a plan to extend Priority Access License (PAL) terms from three to 10 years and enlarging the PAL areas, which were based on census tracts in the original proposal. Debate continues on the proposals, with the FCC expected to vote on them in early 2018.

There you have it. That’s our list for 2018. Did we miss something or get the order all mixed up? Let me know. Meanwhile, have a great holiday and we’ll see you in 2018! —Monica | @fiercewrlsstech