LTE-WiFi debate exposes spectrum land grab

May 11, 2015 //By Junko Yoshida
When the Federal Communications Commission issued a public notice last week seeking information on LTE-Unlicensed (LTE-U) and Licensed Assisted Access (LAA), many media outlets tended to frame the news as a technical debate on the possibility of peaceful co-existence between two competing wireless technologies: LTE-U/LAA versus WiFi.

Cellular operators are proposing LTE-U/LAA so that they can use LTE in the unlicensed frequency bands currently used by WiFi. Their mission is to offload the exploding data traffic on cellular networks to WiFi.

We suspected that there were fairness issues lurking in the LTE-U/LAA versus WiFi debate. Powerful cellular operators with licensed spectrum now want to poach the unlicensed spectrum. However, there was little evidence. We weren't sure if cellular carriers are pushing the new standard to prevent competition from unlicensed spectrum users for their primary broadband businesses (i.e., Wireless First advocates and cable operators).

Now we have new information.

'Smoking gun'

Dave Burstein, editor at DSL Prime, A Wireless Cloud & The DOCSIS Report, recently unearthed a document circulated among 11 carriers – including AT&T, T-Mobile USA, Sprint, China Mobile, KT, Telefonica, Orange -- who attended one of the 3GPP’s working group meetings in Belgrade, Serbia in late April.

The document, “Precluding standalone access of LTE on unlicensed carriers” proposes a) to revise the 3GPP’s own rule that LTE-U could be used by any carriers (including those operating on the unlicensed spectrums), and b) and to prohibit non-LTE carriers from using LTE-U.

Burstein told said, “Telcos want LAA to require a control signal in licensed LTE spectrum -- which others, like WiFi-first mobile service providers like Republic Wireless, don't own.”

LAA, a new standard currently in development at 3GPP, is similar to LTE-U, allowing licensed cellular operators to use for data traffic the unlicensed spectrum that currently accommodates WiFi.

As background, the document even points out: “Standalone deployment in unlicensed spectrum implies drastically different business models from nowadays and might impact the value chain.”

Translation: As WiFi technology gets better and starts embracing new techniques developed for LTE-U, broadband operators such as Republic First and cable operators like Comcast could become more and more like cellular operators, thus disrupting the competitive landscape.

Burstein interprets the 3GPP’s fear of “drastically different business models” expressed in the document as “the smoking gun that the telcos are doing this to clobber competition.”

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