Ericsson, T-Mobile push unlicensed LTE into limelight as '4.5G' technology for IoT

Mike Dano

LAS VEGAS--Unlicensed spectrum finally seems to be getting some love from the cellular industry.

In the past, wireless carriers and their vendor partners have largely ignored unlicensed services, leaving the Wi-Fi industry to largely fend for itself. Of course, there have been a few notable exceptions--AT&T acquired Wi-Fi provider Wayport in 2008 and, more recently, T-Mobile introduced an overhauled Wi-Fi calling service.

But by and large the industry has focused most of its attention and money on licensed spectrum--just look at the collective $45 billion that wireless companies have bid so far in the FCC's ongoing AWS-3 spectrum auction.

It's exactly that demand for licensed spectrum that appears to have renewed industry interest in unlicensed radio waves. Highlighting this recent interest in unlicensed spectrum are T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) and Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC), which this week announced they plan to trial "License Assisted Access" technology in the 5 GHz band sometime this year.

"Licensed Assisted Access (LAA) is a new and emerging LTE technology that shows promise by combining licensed and unlicensed spectrum more seamlessly," T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray wrote in a blog post. "Importantly, LAA brings all of LTE's efficiencies--sophisticated Quality of Service controls and robustness--to the unlicensed band in a way that compliments Wi-Fi yet provides far greater coverage performance."

Ray said T-Mobile is working with vendors including Ericsson to test the technology this year, and the carrier hopes to bring the technology to its customers in the "near future." (To be clear, Ray's post largely reiterates reporting my colleague Monica Alleven did late last year.)

For its part, Ericsson said it will add License Assisted Access technology into its small cell portfolio starting in fourth quarter of this year. The company also described LAA as a "new 4.5G technology." Because it's more exciting that way.

Ericsson and T-Mobile explained that they want to use LAA to make data transmissions in the underused 5 GHz band more efficient while continuing to provide a high level of service. They also promised to share the spectrum fairly with Wi-Fi users. Left unsaid is the fact that LAA technology likely will also help wireless carriers keep a tighter grip on their customers' usage, experience and billing than if they just supported Wi-Fi directly.

To be clear, Ericsson and T-Mobile aren't the only companies eying the intersection of LTE and unlicensed spectrum in the 5 GHz band. Nokia, Huawei, Qualcomm, NTT DoCoMo and a variety of other companies have also played with the idea of running LTE in the unlicensed 5 GHz band (most such efforts describe the technology as "LTE Unlicensed" or simply "LTE U"). Indeed, the 3GPP is working on standards now for the technology, an effort that Nokia  (NYSE:NOK) said the 3GPP started in June 2014 and expects to complete in June 2015. (The development of standards for LTE in unlicensed spectrum may not be going all though smoothly though, according to a Light Reading report last year.)

Moreover, wireless companies aren't the only ones interested in unlicensed spectrum. As the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) continues to push the FCC to free up more unlicensed spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band--a topic Fierce has reported on extensively. The WSJ also reported that Milo Medin, a Google executive who previously led Google Fiber, is now heading up an unspecified Internet access project at the search giant. According to the WSJ, Google also recently hired Andrew Clegg, a spectrum expert at the National Science Foundation, and Preston Marshall, a spectrum expert formerly of DARPA. This summer, Google bought wireless start-up Alpental Technologies, which was founded by former Clearwire engineers to focus on cheap wireless technologies.

So what should we make of all this activity in unlicensed spectrum? First, we can assume that the dramatic increases in the cost of licensed spectrum are driving companies toward unlicensed solutions. After all, it doesn't cost anyone anything to use unlicensed spectrum. Further, as the WSJ points out, pushing users onto unlicensed spectrum could help lower the overall cost of wireless Internet access--a situation that would be welcomed by video providers like YouTube and users wary of data overages from YouTube binges.

But an equally important factor in the push toward LTE in unlicensed use cases is the growing noise around the Internet of Things (IoT). Here at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show, IoT is the buzzword on everyone's lips, and wireless carriers are keen to grab a piece of the market. As Peter Jarich, vice president of consumer and infrastructure services for research firm Current Analysis, pointed out in Ericsson's press release on the topic, unlicensed LTE is "all about optimizing the network to support diverse consumer applications, diverse user locations (indoors and outdoors), and diverse device types--including future IoT (Internet of Things) demands."

If you can tie a technology to the rising IoT tide, it must be worth exploring.--Mike | @mikeddano