Author(s): Raghu Gopal
This week, the Office of Engineering and Technology of the US Federal Communications Commission announced the authorisation of the first LTE-U equipment.
LTE-U is the repurposing of 4G LTE technology to be used over unlicensed spectrum, in this case the 5 GHz band. It will allow wireless carriers to boost capacity by providing subscribers with LTE hot spots, which cover a limited distance but provide greater throughput than traditional 4G signals.
The approved LTE-U equipment comes from Ericsson and Nokia, and will enable mobile carriers to begin the build-out of their respective LTE-U networks. Although this is a significant development for the US wireless industry, there's a gap on the other side of the coin: client devices. Manufacturers will certainly begin announcing devices compatible with the new technology in 2017, but the current 270 million smartphones in use in the US are unable to access LTE-U signals. It will take time before there's wide deployment by carriers and usage from customers.
Nevertheless, US carriers have every reason to throw their energetic support behind LTE-U. All major wireless providers in the country now offer unlimited data packages, but limited spectrum will dampen the real-world experience for users in many locations. These unlimited plans come with restrictions to enforce fair-use behaviour.
Given the growing consumption of video content on the go and the potential of 4K content going mobile, carriers can use all the bandwidth they can get. For smartphone and other mobile device manufacturers, LTE-U provides an opportunity to reduce the elongating smartphone upgrade cycle. This would be a welcome development by Qualcomm, which will supply most of the chipsets to enable LTE-U devices.
T-Mobile USA was particularly quick to announce its plans to implement the LTE-U equipment from Ericsson and Nokia in its network in spring 2017. T-Mobile certainly has a device client of some sort ready for the showing to make this good theatre.
We've highlighted the ongoing industry abrasion of LTE-U several times (for example, see LTE-U's Balancing Act). The technology will now occupy the same spectrum as some Wi-Fi signals and there's a theoretical risk of interference between the two connectivity technologies. For service providers relying on robust Wi-Fi signals, such as cable operators that have rolled out a nationwide Wi-Fi network, there has certainly been discomfort.
The US Federal Communications Commission has tested for interference, but evaluation in the real-world will be the one to watch. LTE-U will certainly be a topic of discussion at Mobile World Congress next week. The technology is emerging at a time when it's needed to meet user demand and create some connectivity excitement in the interim of 5G.