LTE-U: Friend or Foe?
Over the past few months the telecommunications world has seen multiple articles on the advantages of LTE-U, an option for LTE Advanced that would operate in the unlicensed radio spectrum also used by Wi-Fi. At face value, this sounds like a reasonable proposition. Key supporters of the LTE-U standard refer to ‘fair coexistence with Wi-Fi’ as a central design principle. Little is known about how this mechanism would work, however, or the controls that would be necessary to ensure that cellular and Wi-Fi communications do, in fact, coexist.
Why are some equipment providers promoting LTE-U? Well, they get to sell more chips and equipment, and that’s clearly in their interest. So what’s in it for the carrier/service provider? Again, just follow the money.
LTE currently operates in licensed spectrum, which service providers can use because they’ve spent billions of dollars purchasing the rights from governments. But with the massive growth in device proliferation and the rising demand for high-bandwidth smartphone apps, LTE services are becoming congested. Carriers need more spectrum, and fast! The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and their counterparts in other countries have already opened up the 5GHz band to enable low cost, high speed Wi-Fi communications for consumers and businesses alike. Now, cell service providers want access to this same unlicensed spectrum through LTE-U. Because no additional rights have to be purchased, LTE-U would allow carriers to extend their core networks at a fraction of the cost of their existing systems. It’s that simple.
Adoption of Wi-Fi is expanding dramatically. It’s taken 16 years to connect 5 billion Wi-Fi devices to the Internet. In the next 5 years we will add another 20 billion devices to Wi-Fi networks around the world. The Internet of Things (IoT) in particular is becoming a big driver of Wi-Fi device innovation. Because of these trends, it’s critical that the unlicensed spectrum remain reserved for Wi-Fi usage; otherwise Wi-Fi will run out of capacity. Already there are discussions taking place with the FCC about the allocation of more unlicensed bands of spectrum, given the growth of Wi-Fi devices worldwide.
For the consumer, Wi-Fi is rapidly becoming a free public good. Many public spaces, restaurants, hotels and even airlines are providing Wi-Fi service free of charge. In contrast, LTE or LTE-U usage is charged on a per byte basis. In a world where Wi-Fi is a utility, it’s in the consumer’s interest for unlicensed spectrum to continue to be reserved for Wi-Fi only.
The bottom line is simple – do you want to communicate for free or not?