Regulatory Fight Brewing At FCC Over LTE-U Access To Wi-Fi Spectrum

Wayne Rash is senior correspondent for eWEEK and a writer with 30 years of experience. His career includes IT work for the US Air Force.

Follow on: Google +

BLOG: Carriers, cable companies, standards groups and hardware makers are squaring off to fight over giving mobile phones LTE-U access to WiFi spectrum

A fight brewing at the Federal Communications Commission over an unlicensed form of the familiar LTE calling and data protocol used by wireless carriers is likely to develop into a full-blown regulatory tussle over the mobile phone in your pocket.

The likely opponents in the fight are staking their ground in FCC filings regarding something called Docket 15-105.

The issue involves proposals to enable mobile devices, especially phones, to use frequencies that are currently used by Wi-Fi and other unlicensed services, including everything from cordless phones to microwave ovens to Bluetooth headsets.

These days, Wi-Fi is the primary user of the two best known unlicensed bands, 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. But because it’s a general purpose unlicensed set of frequencies, Wi-Fi isn’t the only thing there.

Unlicensed spectrum

mobile phonesIn fact, your microwave oven shares the 2.4 GHz spectrum with WiFi, which used to cause no end of consternation until appliance makers started making their microwaves so they didn’t radiate so much.

But there are still devices, including wireless security cameras, which drive WiFi users nuts. Now, a new technology wants to make use of this already heavily-shared set of unlicensed frequencies—LTE phones.

The idea behind LTE-U is that mobile phones could move to those unlicensed frequencies if their normal cellular frequencies are too congested to use. The proposals currently on the table use dedicated LTE access points operating in the same spectrum as WiFi.

Note that LTE-U is different from the WiFi calling currently used widely by T-Mobile and to a more limited extent by other carriers. That type of calling simply requires these phones to connect to an existing in-range WiFi network in the same way as any other device.

LTE-U technology

The way the standard is working out, LTE-U would depend on the 5 GHz portion of the unlicensed spectrum. While the standards are still a work in progress, a group called the LTE-U Forum is developing interoperability standards and is also developing standards for coexistence with WiFi.

Seems like a good idea, right? After all, the 5 GHz spectrum is only lightly used. Many WiFi devices don’t even work there and it sounds as if it could be something useful. But, of course, this is taking place in Washington, where good ideas frequently go to die. In this case the groups trying to kill off LTE-U are the WiFi Alliance and the cable companies.

So far the FCC hasn’t taken any position on the LTE-U proposal and is currently just gathering the filings before it begins reviewing the arguments.

As you’d expect, the cable companies, as represented by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), claim that LTE-U will disrupt WiFi and harm consumers, although it’s depending on filings by Google rather than its own research.

Wi-Fi Alliance

Wireless broadband, Wi-Fi © 24Novembers, Shutterstock 2012The WiFi Alliance, which is the standards body for WiFi, meanwhile, is demanding that the FCC put any approval of LTE-U products on hold until the Alliance can set its own standards, do its own testing and issue its own approvals. But note that LTE-U isn’t WiFi, so it’s not clear why the alliance claims the right to do standards testing and development.

It’s no more surprising that the two mobile carriers that are leading the effort toward adoption of LTE-U; Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile don’t agree with the WiFi Alliance. T-Mobile, which states in its response that it plans to start testing LTE-U in 2016, suggests that the technical claims of the WiFi Alliance are based on unreasonable assumptions. Having looked over the various charts that the NCTA presents, I think T-Mobile has a point.

But Verizon is making an even stronger case in its response to the WiFi Alliance. Using the logic presented by the Alliance, any device operating in any part of the spectrum currently being used by WiFi, would be required to be approved by the Alliance. This would include, using the Alliance’s own points, everything from those microwave ovens to your Bluetooth headset.

The problem is the idea behind an unlicensed spectrum that allows a wide variety of devices to operate is just that—it’s unlicensed so that a variety of devices can operate. “It would turn the idea of permission-less innovation on its head,” said Verizon vice president for federal regulatory affairs Patrick Welsh.


Welsh, who was speaking from the Qualcomm labs in San Diego, where LTE-U is undergoing a series of tests, said that the LTE-U group is working with other users of unlicensed spectrum to make sure everyone can coexist.

“We started working with the WiFi community when we released our LTE-U specification,” Welsh said. “We asked the community to peer review it. Since March, we’ve had a series of meetings with various unlicensed stakeholders. They have legitimate questions, we want to make sure we’ve heard their concerns.”

While the arguments over LTE-U are sure to continue for some time, and while there are some legitimate questions about how this extra traffic will affect WiFi, it would seem that some groups, notably the WiFi Alliance, are in reality trying to assert their positions as standards groups to the point that they are striving to become approval authorities.

From its own words it seems the WiFi Alliance is seeking authority to approve any use of what is currently unlicensed and free to anyone or any company to use.

One wonders when they’ll start going after the existing licensed users that also share this spectrum who are supposed to be protected from interference from the WiFi Alliance’s constituents—the great mass of WiFi device users.

Originally published on eWeek

Are you up to speed on 4G? Try our quiz!