T-Mobile Launches LTE-U in Spring 2017

LTE Unlicensed, the version of LTE that uses unlicensed 5 GHz spectrum to supplement carrier’s licensed spectrum capacity, has been a topic of much conversation over the past few years.

Many vendors, notably those in the Wi-Fi and fixed wireless access spaces, have been publicly concerned about the impact of LTE-U base stations popping up around the world on frequency they have considered their playground – until now.

Even though it’s unlicensed spectrum, they have been the primary users in most areas of the spectrum and have been able to rely on some level of protection for their networks from the contention-based access mechanism employed by traditional Wi-Fi, or the directional antennas used in fixed wireless access networks.

The biggest proponent of LTE-U from the manufacturer camp has been Qualcomm, which has gone to great lengths to show in tests that LTE-U is a ‘better neighbour to Wi-Fi’ than Wi-Fi is to itself, tests which have long been disputed by Wi-Fi vendors and others with an axe to grind against the potential deployment of LTE-U.

Yesterday, the FCC authorised the first LTE-U devices for operation in the 5 GHz band, much to the delight of the major cellular carriers who are struggling with capacity on their expensive licensed frequency networks and are keen to tap into the comparatively wide 5 GHz band for data offload.

Is LTE-U the bringer of the wireless apocalypse for all Wi-Fi and fixed wireless access networks, as some have postulated over the past few years? This is highly debatable, and will continue to be so as we see initial deployments and responses from other players in the industry.

It’s worth remembering however that although this band is today most associated with Wi-Fi and fixed wireless access, it is intended to be unlicensed spectrum; technology-agnostic and available for use by any user legally operating authorised equipment. Existing network operators have no inherent right to permanent and uncontested use of the band, and must adapt as the other users of the band do – and as others did when they themselves first arrived.

This morning, hot off the heels of the FCC’s announcement of authorised LTE-U equipment, T-Mobile in the United States announced its intention to roll out LTE-U as early as this spring, although the scope and locations of the rollout have not yet been detailed publicly.

The use of unlicensed spectrum to supplement their squeezed licensed frequency capacity is an interesting evolution for the modern cellular carrier, and it is a testament to the flexibility of the LTE protocol suite that it can do so.

However, the long-term appeal of LTE-U remains to be seen, although it does offer a viable, better-integrated alternative to using Wi-Fi to offload data traffic from licensed LTE networks.

Interesting times are ahead for network operators, and LTE-U is just the beginning.