Samsung Galaxy S8 supports LTE-U, which both Verizon and T-Mobile aim to deploy

Samsung S8
Samsung's new phones will support LTE-U and LAA out of the box. Image: Samsung

Samsung’s new Galaxy S8 sports a lot of high-tech features, including the distinction of being the first “gigabit-class” smartphone on T-Mobile’s network, but it also looks to be the first LTE-U consumer device to hit the market.

The introduction of a handset with LTE-U comes after a long-fought battle. LTE-U proponents, which include Verizon and Qualcomm, clashed with the Wi-Fi industry, some of which still suspect LTE might do harm to Wi-Fi even after the Wi-Fi Alliance and other stakeholders spent much of last year devising a test plan designed to avoid that very outcome.

Finally, it appears the day is drawing near when LTE can prove it won’t harm Wi-Fi users, or there’s sure to be a backlash. LTE-U engineers say the way they’re introducing LTE in unlicensed spectrum makes it a better neighbor to Wi-Fi than Wi-Fi is to itself.

A Verizon spokesman said the Samsung S8 is LTE-U capable out of the box and actually is enabled for both LTE-U and LAA. “We plan to be the first and lead the industry in commercial deployment of LTE-U,” he said, noting that Verizon is working with multiple vendors to deploy LTE-U and LAA into its 4G LTE network this year. “The deployment of LTE-U and LAA will provide a great customer experience through enhanced capacity and speeds.”

T-Mobile says much the same thing, declaring that LTE-U will make it possible for T-Mobile to bring its forthcoming Gigabit LTE to more places across the country and will further improve the operator’s “blazing-fast speeds.” Samsung’s latest phones also will be able to tap into T-Mobile’s AWS-3 spectrum, another plus for speed and capacity.

Both T-Mobile and Verizon have demonstrated particular interest in LTE-U technology and said they planned to introduce it this spring after the FCC last month announced it had authorized the first LTE-U devices in the 5 GHz band. The FCC certification covered infrastructure gear from Nokia and Ericsson.

T-Mobile said it started testing LTE-U as part of early field trials starting in December 2016, but Verizon has been pushing LTE-U since at least 2014, when it formed the LTE-U Forum with Alcatel-Lucent (now part of Nokia), Ericsson, Qualcomm Technologies and Samsung. Their aim was to develop specifications for implementing LTE-U to coexist with Wi-Fi and other technologies. Back then, operators were hopeful they could introduce LTE-U at least by 2016, but that didn’t happen.

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Qualcomm’s Sherif Hanna, who’s in charge of technical marketing for Snapdragon LTE and 5G modems, tweeted Wednesday that the Galaxy S8 has the most advanced LTE features—thanks to Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X16 LTE modem.

Indeed, T-Mobile announced that customers with the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ will be the first to tap into the combined power of three T-Mobile advanced LTE technologies already built into its network: 4x4 MIMO, carrier aggregation and 256 QAM. T-Mobile claimed a global first with the rollout of 4x4 MIMO last year and says it has launched more LTE Advanced technologies than anyone else in the industry.

Of course, Samsung needed to pack a powerful punch. After all, it has spent the past six months dealing with the negative publicity related to the exploding Note 7 and one of the largest consumer electronics recalls ever.

Jefferson Wang, senior partner at IBB Consulting, said Samsung’s unveiling of the Galaxy S8 and S8+ proved the mobile industry still has some smartphone innovation tricks up its sleeve, with powerhouse specs that include a 10 nm processor and 64 GH of storage.

Sure, “we’re likely to hear the familiar market criticism that these phones aren’t really a huge departure from what came before them,” Wang wrote in a research brief. “But the market has to remember that this is what innovation looks like in a mature market.”

To be sure, the early buzz seems to indicate Samsung “unpacked” a punch. “Gigabit LTE is very much the marquee specifications for 2017 flagship smartphones,” said Wayne Lam, director at IHS Market, in a statement. “While other OEMs have already committed to launching Gigabit LTE smartphones this year, Samsung will use its chipset and its market share to ensure it is first to ship in volume.”