It's on: LTE-U vs. Wi-Fi

Recently, a new carrier technology called LTE-U (LTE Unlicensed) is at the center of a hot debate, as it has the potential to make Wi-Fi redundant.


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To maximize innovation and competition in wireless space, the FCC and other international regulatory organizations have always allowed a part of the spectrum as unlicensed, along with the licensed spectrum. Unlike licensed spectrum, which is available for exclusive use via auction (to the highest bidder), the unlicensed spectrum is available for people to share. People can use unlicensed spectrum just by following technical rules. They do not need government authorities telling them what to do. This model has worked exceptionally well, as consumers ultimately have been able to choose what best serves their needs. Cellphone connectivity is one of the top innovations in licensed space, and Wi-Fi in the unlicensed space. Can't live without either!

And, recently, a new carrier technology called LTE-U (LTE Unlicensed) has started being tested, and it has the potential to offer a substantially better cellphone experience. LTE-U isn't meant to replace LTE, but add to LTE's speed and services in areas that have high congestion. A device would connect using a typical LTE connection as well as connect with nearby LTE-U signals at the same time to get more bandwidth and better service. With LTE-U, your mobile phone will experience better throughput, better coverage, and increased capacity. However, LTE-U connects in unlicensed 5GHz Spectrum (same as Wi-Fi), and that is the reason for the big debate. The telecom or cable operators, Internet service providers, managed service providers, and Wi-Fi infrastructure vendors are all involved. Some of them want to preserve the status quo for Wi-Fi, some of them want to push forward without considering impact on Wi-Fi, and some of them even want to regulate the unlicensed space.

If you have used a cell phone for data, I am sure you have experienced slowness even in 4G networks. And at times we haev connected to Wi-Fi for as much as $14.95 per hour. Make no mistake - the debate is not about what is better for the consumer. The debate is about who will keep that $14.95.

A few facts about LTE-U:

  • LTE-U devices will meet the same power regulations as the Wi-Fi devices that exist today.
  • Unlike LTE, LTE-U will not be broadcast from macro cell towers. It's strictly a small cell technology. LTE-U is good for healthcare, shopping malls, universities, hotels, stadiums and all the areas where "guest" cellphone users expect a better data experience.
  • LTE has better spectral efficiency than Wi-Fi. Compared to Wi-Fi, LTE can go up to twice the distance at the same power output.
  • LTE back-off algorithms are different from Wi-Fi, and ASIS coexistence may be challenging.

Will LTE-U impact Wi-Fi performance?

Yes, there is no doubt. However, I don't agree with the fact that we should stop innovation in the unlicensed spectrum, as Wi-Fi is good enough. Wi-Fi itself was invented because we were allowed to innovate in unlicensed spectrum. No standards body for one technology should be given the right to impose limitations on another. Innovators have delivered millions of offerings, such as baby monitors, cordless phones, industrial/logistics/inventory systems, remote car door openers, and many more. Let the innovation continue.

Should you be worried as a consumer?

No, not at all. This debate between Wi-Fi and LTE-U is a nice problem to have. The conflict reflects the fundamental dynamism of the wireless industry. Technologies rise and fall based on their usefulness and subsequent adoption. We have witnessed many wireless technologies: AMPS, 2G, GSM, HSPA+, LTE, WiMax, Bluetooth, ZigBee, Active RFID (433MHz, 900MHz, etc.). Each with their set of advantages and success rate. The whole point of competition is that the companies try. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Bring it on and we (consumers) can decide what works best for us.

Looking forward to hearing your opinions on this.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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