Cellular in the Unlicensed Bands? Why Not?

You don't need expensive licensed spectrum to operate a full-blown voice/data/messaging/etc. cellular service. xG technology is doing exactly that today - and the potential is huge.

I first spoke with Joe Bobier, the CTO at xG Technology, at least five years ago, and was immediately impressed with his technical skill and vision. If you've not heard of xG, they've been plugging away for the past decade developing what I noted in the title of this entry - a broadband cellular system designed to be deployed in the unlicensed bands, and currently operating the to 900 MHz. ISM band today. I had a couple of briefings with management over the years, but, like a few other analysts I compared notes with, I couldn't really get a handle on their product or market direction, again despite some very interesting and original technology. All that changed with the recent arrival of marketing whiz Rick Rotondo, whom I first met at another innovative firm, Mesh Technologies, which was subsequently acquired by Motorola. Rick then went to another innovator, Spectrum Bridge, whom I've also recently written about, and is now in the process of getting xG's equipment on the street.

But before I get too far ahead of myself here, you're probably wondering how and more likely why anyone would want to operate a cellular system in the unlicensed bands. Well, there's one big justification here: cost. Unlicensed means just that, and there are no license fees or other governmental costs apart from local regulations regarding safety and aesthetics. So - want to be a mobile CLEC? No problem. How about setting up emergency communications in a rural area on a moment's notice? Ditto. In fact, there are so many possibilities here that I've published a new Farpoint Group White Paper on this topic. Have a look - I think you will be intrigued with the potential here, just as I was. I did, in fact, have the opportunity to try xG's equipment deployed in their demo facility in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. It works just like any other cellular system, and the voice quality was excellent.

Sure, you might express concerns about interference - but consider then that Wi-Fi systems (many offering voice service, BTW) have been happily productive in the unlicensed bands for well over a decade, and, while interference needs to be managed (as it is on xG's systems), there is no showstopper here. Once again, cognitive radio is the solution, and is also a hallmark of xG's technology. Simply put, cognitive radio is the ability of a radio, perhaps using an external source like a White Spaces Database or a local mechanism like clear channel assessment (or even both) to settle on a transmit frequency. This, plus the spread-spectrum methodologies mandated in the Part 15 and other unlicensed-band rules, should do the trick. Of course, there are no guarantees in wireless - even the licensed bands have issues that affect quality, as every cellphone user knows. But it is absolutely possible for a cellular system operating in the unlicensed bands to offer very competitive services again at a much lower cost than cellular as we know it today. This space bears watching - and I expect more interesting developments here over the next few years.

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