FCC Okays Limited Testing of LTE-U by Qualcomm, Verizon

The testing will focus on whether cellular devices can co-exist easily with WiFi and other services on the unlicensed LTE spectrum.


Federal regulators have taken a significant step in the increasingly heated debate about allowing smartphones and other mobile devices to use unlicensed spectrum normally used by WiFi and other unlicensed services by enabling Qualcomm and Verizon to conduct more tests of LTE-U equipment.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is giving Qualcomm and Verizon permission to conduct "very small scale performance evaluation tests of LTE-U equipment" at Verizon facilities in Oklahoma City, Okla., and Raleigh, N.C. In a Jan. 29 post on the FCC blog site, Julius Knapp, chief of the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology, wrote that the agency is giving Qualcomm "special temporary authority" to conduct the tests.

Such testing is important as carriers and mobile phone makers look to LTE-U—the "U" standing for "unlicensed"—to relieve pressure from already overloaded broadband networks and give users a better overall experience.

"The success of the unlicensed bands as laboratories of innovation is largely the result of industry-driven coordination and, while significant steps remain before LTE-U can be considered for commercial deployment, we believe that this development is an encouraging step in continuing that success," Knapp wrote.

The use of this LTE-U spectrum—which primarily covers the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, though the debate is focused more on 5GHz—is at the center of an increasingly contentious debate. While WiFi is the primary user of the unlicensed spectrum, it's not the only one. Other services, from cordless phones and microwave ovens to security systems, baby monitors and drones, also use the bands.

Proponents are eyeing the unlicensed spectrum as a way to keep service levels up, even if traditional cellular frequencies become congested by enabling mobile phones to move to the unlicensed frequencies. Qualcomm, Verizon, T-Mobile and others believe that LTE-U can be used by cellular devices without hindering WiFi devices in the spectrum.

However, cable companies and vendors like Google are pushing back, worried that having those cellular devices crowding into the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands would only make things more difficult for WiFi and the other technologies using it. The WiFi Alliance, the standards body for WiFi, also has argued against it on similar grounds, and has told the FCC that it should be the body that approves or rejects all LTE-U products.

The group also has agreed to work with LTE-U proponents to develop test plans for evaluating how cellular devices and WiFi can work together in the unlicensed spectrum. The alliance is hosting a second WiFi and LTE-U coexistence test workshop Feb. 10 in San Jose, Calif., to continue its work in developing standardized testing. Alliance officials said in a statement that "the future value of unlicensed spectrum is dependent upon good stewardship by all technologies that operate therein."

The FCC's Knapp said the WiFi Alliance is working with LTE-U proponents to create a test plan, a draft of which should be released in February. Both Qualcomm and Verizon have agreed to "participate in subsequent laboratory and real-world co-existence testing of LTE-U," he wrote.