Depending on who you talk to, LTE-U — the term given to using mobile LTE technology to transmit in unlicensed airwaves — is either the future of communications, or a terrible idea that will wreck Wi-Fi. The US FCC is studiously not taking sides in the argument, but is allowing further testing.
A quick primer: LTE-U is a proposal to use the unlicensed 5.8GHz spectrum to transmit mobile signals, an idea that would dramatically increase the amount of capacity available for mobile data. It’s being backed by a consortium including Samsung, Qualcomm and Verizon, all of whom claim LTE-U will be a vital part of preventing network gridlock in the future.
On the other hand, the unlicensed 5.8Ghz spectrum that LTE-U would use is already in use by existing technologies, most notably Wi-Fi. The LTE-U camp is (obviously) claiming that LTE-U and Wi-Fi can live happily side-by-side. On the other hand, opponents such as Google have written to the FCC, saying that LTE-U “coexists poorly” with Wi-Fi, and has the potential to be a huge problem if widely deployed.
Both sides have deployed extensive technical arguments (and research) to back their cases, but the FCC has yet to make any kind of decision. That doesn’t mean the Commission is taking it easy. In a blog post on Friday, it announced permission for Qualcomm to perform small-scale tests of LTE-U at two Verizon facilities in the US. Sometime next month, it’s also hoping for the Wi-Fi Alliance to issue a plan for more generalised and real-world testing.
There’s a very difficult balance for the FCC to strike here. Telecoms technology improves at a rapid rate — just think about how quick the move from 2G to 4G technology was — and overly burdensome regulation can have a knock-on effect that limits advances for decades.
But on the other hand, Wi-Fi is a standard that millions of people rely on for Netflix every day, and anything that could kill it needs to be examined at length. Add to that the politics of giant corporations in play, and I don’t envy the job of anyone at the FCC right now.