LTE-U, WiFi Backers Wrangle With FCC Over Sharing Spectrum

NEWS ANALYSIS: Verizon's plans to use unlicensed spectrum for LTE gets vested interests riled up as they think of ways to convince the FCC they should be the regulators of LTE products.

Wireless Spectrum 2

The other unlicensed shoe has dropped and stirred confusion as it makes its first bounce.

At the end of October, a group of cable companies and big tech companies including Microsoft and Google had a meeting with Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler in which they complained about non-WiFi use of unlicensed spectrum. In their Ex Parte filing after the meeting, the attorneys representing those companies revealed the contents of their discussion.

What the folks in Big Cable and Big Software are complaining about is that cell phone companies might start using the same unlicensed spectrum they currently use for WiFi for another technology, a form of LTE wireless technology that works on unlicensed frequencies.

Those frequencies, which primarily are in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, support WiFi, of course, but also support a wide selection of other services, including microwave ovens, drone controllers, baby monitors and security systems.

Those frequencies are not reserved for any specific service, including WiFi. You can, as long as you meet certain FCC standards for signal purity and non-interference with licensed services, do anything you want on those unlicensed bands. Despite what many might say about WiFi and other services, there are no specific standards and no standards-settings body for unlicensed spectrum.

The FCC, meanwhile, is seeking information on what to do about the competing demands for access to spectrum from WiFi and LTE-U services. The commission's job is complicated by the commercial interests of the WiFi Alliance, which is trying to have itself declared the arbiter of all things using that part of the spectrum. In fact, the WiFi Alliance is trying to convince the FCC that it should approve all LTE-U products, just as if the LTE-U gear were WiFi gear.

Confusion is winning the day, however. This is because there are two different (and unrelated) technologies that allow people with the right mobile phones to use unlicensed frequencies. One of these is the LTE-U we've been discussing, which allows LTE to exist in those unlicensed frequencies alongside WiFi. The other is WiFi Calling, which allows a mobile device to connect to a WiFi access point in exactly the same way as any other WiFi device.

With WiFi Calling, which has been around for years and which existed even before there were smartphones, the phone sends your call over the WiFi connection as a data signal. T-Mobile started offering WiFi Calling a decade or so ago because it needed to give customers a way to make calls when the company had comparatively few cells available. Other cell companies, including AT&T and Sprint, are offering WiFi Calling as well, since the hardware for it already exists in phones they're selling.

Verizon also may be offering WiFi Calling in addition to LTE-U. Many of its phones already have the capability. For example, Apple makes exactly the same iPhone for use by Verizon as it makes for T-Mobile.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...