Quiet rumblings but few fireworks at LTE-U gathering

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Credit: RyanMcGuire via Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

A Washington, D.C. think tank on Wednesday hosted the first event to feature representatives from both sides of the LTE-U debate since a contentious agreed testing framework was created several weeks ago.

The panelists included representatives from Broadcom, Verizon, Comcast, T-Mobile and consumer advocate Public Knowledge. The event was moderated by the director of the wireless future project at New America’s Open Technology Institute, Michael Calabrese, and kicked off with presentations from Josh Breitbart, a senior adviser for broadband to New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, and Kevin Robinson, vice president of marketing for the Wi-Fi Alliance.

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The main takeaway from the event is that there is broad, if not enthusiastic, agreement that the Wi-Fi Alliance’s testing protocol will serve as a de facto industry standard in the future – and that the FCC’s light-touch approach to potential conflicts between Wi-Fi and LTE-U is the right one.

“We now have a final test plan that really does represent the very best outcome that industry could have reached,” said Robinson. “Is it perfect? No.”

Wireless telcos like Verizon and T-Mobile have been among the most vocal proponents of LTE-U technology, a system that uses the same unlicensed frequencies as Wi-Fi to provide mobile broadband to subscribers. Various other parties – including city governments like New York, consumer advocates like Public Knowledge, and large swathes of the technology sector that depend on the smooth functioning of Wi-Fi – have reacted with alarm to the possibility that LTE-U could interfere with existing Wi-Fi.

The debate has been heated, over the past year or so, as both sides traded blows over the proposed framework for the testing that will ultimately determine whether LTE-U is sufficiently “polite” to share spectrum with Wi-Fi.

Conspicuously absent from the stage was Qualcomm, the silicon manufacturer originally responsible for the technology’s design. The company last month issued a stinging denunciation of the testing framework, saying that it is deeply biased against LTE-U and doesn’t allow for meaningful coexistence testing.

Yet the finalization of the testing protocol appears to have damped the fires somewhat, as all parties seemed to agree that the process was flawed, but accepted its results.

Still, both sides traded polite blows on several issues – David Don, of Comcast, accused the wireless companies of introducing the concept of LTE-U in a high-handed and counterproductive way.

“What we had in this situation was this private technology development – the unilateral release by a subgroup of telecom players to declare how they intend to use these bands,” he said. “Perhaps fully compliant with the regulations, but no longer really compliant with the customs and norms of not just the U.S. policy, but global policy.”

For his part, T-Mobile vice president of engineering and technology policy Steve Sharkey argued that, despite all the angst over interference from LTE-U, Wi-Fi proponents might find a more serious threat somewhat closer to home.

“The biggest interferer out there is Wi-Fi,” he said.

Harold Feld, of Public Knowledge, put the issue into broader perspective by highlighting the fact that the industry is far different than it was even five years ago.

“This is not a unique problem – we have four or five FCC proceedings right now that are all coming out of the same general problem, which is that the nature of wireless has changed,” he said. “It’s a very crowded world. So how do we make sure that nothing crashes and burns, and at the same time how do we allow innovation moving forward?”

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