By the Blouin News Technology staff

Unlicensed spectrum debate heats up in the U.S.

by in Enterprise Tech.

Getty Images

Getty Images

The spectrum wars are heating up in the U.S. as tech companies petition the government to intervene on licensing coveted waves for bandwidth. Cell operators, wi-fi companies, device manufacturers, and semiconductor giants are all getting involved, and adding their two cents on how the distribution of wireless spectrum in the U.S. should pan out. In early June, a bit of a feud broke out between T-Mobile and AT&T and Verizon — as is wont to happen with the three wireless giants — about Verizon and AT&T’s spectrum-hogging. T-Mobile aimed to try to get the American public on board with vilifying its competitors by claiming they receive unfair advantages when it comes to spectrum auctions in the U.S. Now, the Wi-Fi Alliance, a non-profit coalition that develops, funds, supports, certifies, and helps bring to market wi-fi devices and technologies, is petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to delay the certification of LTE-Unlicensed (LTE-U) equipment. In the meanwhile, supporters of the Wi-Fi Alliance, including Qualcomm, have challenged this directive.

As the EE Times explains: “LTE-U aims to extend LTE Advanced to unlicensed 5 GHz spectrum.” This advancement would boost cell data speeds over short distances without requiring users to login to wi-fi networks, meaning that wi-fi operators and companies that rely on it believe that a licensing of this technology could compromise how and when wi-fi is currently used in the U.S.

Companies that rely on wi-fi for broadband worry about inference and regulation. The Wi-Fi Alliance wants to delay the certification of LTE-U equipment until it can be sure that the unlicensed spectrum will be used “fairly.” Its letter to the F.C.C. from mid-August says:

Wi-Fi Alliance…asks the Commission to withhold certification of any LTE-U equipment until such time as it is fully satisfied that fair sharing of unlicensed spectrum will be achieved. In order for the tremendous success that has characterized Wi-Fi to continue, co-existence concerns must be completely addressed.

Another letter signed from companies including Ericsson, Alcatel-Lucent, Qualcomm, T-Mobile, and Verizon issued last week says that the F.C.C. “should reject the Wi-Fi Alliance’s request to withhold certification of LTE-U equipment and become the self-appointed gatekeeper of unlicensed spectrum.” The letter reads:

To be clear, we are strong supporters of Wi-Fi. And we recognize and appreciate that new technologies must share unlicensed spectrum fairly. That concern was the very reason why the LTE-U Forum developed and released extensive etiquette protocols and coexistence testing requirements that ensure that LTE-U operates alongside Wi-Fi and other technologies as well as, if not better than, Wi-Fi does today.

What’s interesting here is that Qualcomm, ALU, and T-Mobile are all supporters of the Wi-Fi Alliance. There seems to be an at-odds partnership — one which places the coalition at a crossroads. Qualcomm claims that using LTE-U will make the use of unlicensed spectrum much more efficient than what current standards allow. The Wi-Fi Alliance wants to protect the family of devices and networks its groups have heavily invested in, in order to maintain their relevance. The industry groups that comprise the Wi-Fi Alliance such as the CTIA and GSM have clear stakes in how the wi-fi spectrum landscape develops in the U.S. as they are directly tied to cellular companies. But those same companies also have clear stakes in making the most out of spectrum available in the U.S. It’s a complex and murky back-and-forth with ever-shifting allegiances.