The WFA debate over LTE-U at 5 GHz is just the start of what likely will be a long, difficult war over unlicensed spectrum between Wi-Fi and cellular camps. The technical debates are informed, in part, by conflicts over business models that represent billions of dollars in revenues
To date Wi-Fi has generally supported free services over unlicensed spectrum which make money by selling hardware or related services such as selling online ads. By contrast, cellular carriers generally make money on paid-for spectrum by charging users for managed services.
Smartphones put pressure on the profitability of cellular carriers as they scrambled to build out their networks to handle a rising tide of mobile data. The financial pinch forced carriers into consolidations and a search for more spectrum. Meanwhile over-the top Web services siphoned off a growing percentage of mobile data revenues.
In the tech culture clash that ensured, Wi-Fi backers resent cellular carriers encroaching on their free spectrum. For their part, cellular carriers resent Web services making enormous profits by taking a free ride on their networks.
Qualcomm currently serves both camps with cellular and Wi-Fi chips. However, it sees a break out opportunity to define in the 5G timeframe a new kind of network that can handle both free and paid-for services across both licensed and unlicensed bands.
The company’s MuLTEfire technology is a first step in that direction. It goes beyond LTE-U and LAA by supporting all the required cellular services – uplinks, downlinks and control channels – on licensed or unlicensed bands. Qualcomm already established a trade group promoting MuLTEfire with backers including Cisco, Ericsson, Intel, Nokia and Softbank.
Today the MuLTEfire technology is too expensive for consumer access points. So Qualcomm is working in its labs on a new air interface that would support licensed and unlicensed bands at lower cost and higher efficiency. It could essentially replace both 4G and Wi-Fi and probably form the basis of the company’s proposal for a 5G standard.
Today’s LTE-U and MuLTEfire technologies already deliver at least twice the throughput and coverage area of the current 802.11ac version of Wi-Fi, said Mingxi Fan, a vice president of engineering in Qualcomm’s R&D group. Because they are based on LTE, they also support mobile terminals, unlike Wi-Fi, he added.
“Our goal is to make sure in spectrum sharing the end user gets the highest quality technology with the most efficient sharing – most likely with a greenfield design,” said Fan.