T-Mobile takes LTE-U crown, launches in select locations

It looks like T-Mobile beat Verizon to the punch when it comes to the launch of LTE-U, as it's now saying it’s live in select locations in Bellevue, Washington; Brooklyn, New York; Dearborn, Michigan; Las Vegas, Nevada; Richardson, Texas, and Simi Valley, California, with more rolling out later this year.

To top it off, T-Mobile declared that it completed the nation’s first mobile broadband data session live in the field using License Assisted Access (LAA) on its commercial network. The field testing, which began in Los Angeles on Sunday, showed 741 Mbps download speeds using 80 MHz of aggregated spectrum.

T-Mobile’s claim to being first with LTE-U is notable given that it was Verizon that formed the LTE-U Forum back in 2014 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. Now Verizon has also said it plans to deploy LTE-U and LAA this year.

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

“LAA is the just the latest example of how T-Mobile is innovating the way forward. While our competitors scramble to deal with the way unlimited data plans are slowing down their networks, we’re already moving on to what’s next,” said Neville Ray, CTO at T-Mobile, in a release. “This means that the fastest LTE network—that’s T-Mobile—will only get faster. I hope AT&T and Verizon like eating our dust!”

T-Mobile said LTE-U will enable it to deliver even more capacity and faster speeds—and there’s no need to turn on or download anything. It just works for T-Mobile customers in LTE-U locations with compatible smartphones. T-Mobile didn’t identify the compatible smartphones in its release, but Samsung’s Galaxy S8 was the first LTE-U consumer device to hit the market.

RELATED: T-Mobile launching some LTE-U now, LAA on the horizon

LTE-U provides similar speed and capacity benefits for consumers as the technologies T-Mobile launched last fall—Carrier Aggregation, 256 QAM (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation) and 4x4 MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output)—with less licensed spectrum.

The Wi-Fi, cable and LTE industries spent much of last year devising a test plan to ensure that LTE-U plays fair with Wi-Fi, but CableLabs indicated in a blog post last week that it’s not entirely comfortable with how efforts are going. The group signaled it will remain vigilant when it comes to the coexistence between Wi-Fi and other technologies. LAA, the technology developed through 3GPP, generally has been more warmly received than LTE-U by those in the traditional unlicensed wireless community.

T-Mobile said LAA enables greater carrier aggregation than LTE-U, so mobile operators can combine larger amounts of unlicensed and licensed spectrum. LAA will allow T-Mobile to deliver even more bandwidth and faster speeds to customers in the future. The “Un-carrier” plans to further densify its network with small cells which include LAA functionality starting later this year.

Interestingly, T-Mobile isn't the only carrier talking about LTE-U and LAA this week. AT&T announced it conducted a test with Ericsson on a live LTE-LAA network in downtown San Francisco, recording speeds up "more than" 650 Mbps. AT&T noted LTE-LAA is a technology it expects to use in its so-called "5G Evolution" markets.

As T-Mobile, AT&T and others move closer to deploying LTE into unlicensed spectrum, some firms are predicting a major spending effort. Indeed, ABI Research issued a release predicting that new LTE unlicensed and shared spectrum technologies will launch a hardware market worth $1.7 billion over the next 5 years. The firm named LTE Unlicensed, CBRS and MulteFire specifically. 

"LTE-U/LAA will appeal to MNOs planning to densify but with insufficient spectrum or capex to acquire it," Nick Marshall, research director at ABI Research, said in a release. "Meanwhile, MulteFire and CBRS technologies promise very low network buildout costs with economics that threaten to disrupt the DAS market. The technologies appeal to many Communications Service Providers, or CSPs, especially as CBRS pioneers a significant change in spectrum management for the industry. Also, traditional spectrum refarming cannot match the increasing mobile broadband throughput demands in the migration to 5G."