Regulatory Fight Brewing at FCC Over LTE-U Access to WiFi Spectrum

NEWS ANALYSIS: Carriers, cable companies, standards groups and hardware makers are squaring off to fight over giving mobile phones LTE-U access to WiFi spectrum.

LTE-U Spectrum

A fight brewing at the Federal Communications Commission over an unlicensed form of the familiar LTE calling and data protocol used by wireless carriers is likely to develop into a full-blown regulatory tussle over the mobile phone in your pocket.

The likely opponents in the fight are staking their ground in FCC filings regarding something called Docket 15-105.

The issue involves proposals to enable mobile devices, especially phones, to use frequencies that are currently used by WiFi and other unlicensed services, including everything from cordless phones to microwave ovens to Bluetooth headsets.

These days, WiFi is the primary user of the two best known unlicensed bands, 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. But because it's a general purpose unlicensed set of frequencies, WiFi isn't the only thing there.

In fact, your microwave oven shares the 2.4 GHz spectrum with WiFi, which used to cause no end of consternation until appliance makers started making their microwaves so they didn't radiate so much.

But there are still devices, including wireless security cameras, which drive WiFi users nuts. Now, a new technology wants to make use of this already heavily-shared set of unlicensed frequencies—LTE phones.

The idea behind LTE-U is that mobile phones could move to those unlicensed frequencies if their normal cellular frequencies are too congested to use. The proposals currently on the table use dedicated LTE access points operating in the same spectrum as WiFi.

Note that LTE-U is different from the WiFi calling currently used widely by T-Mobile and to a more limited extent by other carriers. That type of calling simply requires these phones to connect to an existing in-range WiFi network in the same way as any other device.

The way the standard is working out, LTE-U would depend on the 5 GHz portion of the unlicensed spectrum. While the standards are still a work in progress, a group called the LTE-U Forum is developing interoperability standards and is also developing standards for coexistence with WiFi.

Seems like a good idea, right? After all, the 5 GHz spectrum is only lightly used. Many WiFi devices don't even work there and it sounds as if it could be something useful. But, of course, this is taking place in Washington, where good ideas frequently go to die. In this case the groups trying to kill off LTE-U are the WiFi Alliance and the cable companies.

So far the FCC hasn't taken any position on the LTE-U proposal and is currently just gathering the filings before it begins reviewing the arguments.

As you'd expect, the cable companies, as represented by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), claim that LTE-U will disrupt WiFi and harm consumers, although it's depending on filings by Google rather than its own research.

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...