Google, Microsoft, Comcast Oppose Verizon's Unlicensed Spectrum Plans

Verizon plans to use unlicensed spectrum for LTE-U for customers, but competitors say the practice will interfere with their services.

Verizon, wireless spectrum, Google, Comcast, Microsoft, FCC, WiFi calling

Verizon is planning to use an unlicensed portion of the nation's electromagnetic spectrum for LTE-U services for its customers, but the plan is drawing opposition from some major technology players, who argue that the plan will cause interference with existing WiFi systems.

The interest in the use of the unlicensed spectrum is being spearheaded by Verizon, but opponents, including Google, Microsoft and Comcast, have filed a claim with the Federal Communications Commission that raises their concerns about the planned practice, according to a Dec. 3 story by Bloomberg.

Mobile carriers pay billions of dollars to license parts of the nation's radio wave spectrum to provide services for their mobile customers, but Verizon is looking at using part of the unlicensed range for free by incorporating phones that have compatible chip, reported Bloomberg. Verizon argues that the practice would "help clear cellular congestion and keep the Internet working at top speed as data use climbs ever higher," the story said.

"Unlicensed spectrum is going to be an important part of providing a better mobile broadband experience for our customers," David Young, Verizon's vice president for public policy, told Bloomberg.

The problem, opponents argue, is that the proposed system, called LTE in Unlicensed Spectrum or LTE-U, "relies on a combination of new, small cell towers and home wireless routers [and] risks disrupting the existing Wi-Fi access most people enjoy," the story continued.

The opponents of the plan have involved with others in lobbying the FCC to delay LTE-U’s adoption until further testing is done, the story reported. In an Oct. 23 FCC filing, Google, Microsoft and Comcast wrote that LTE-U "has avoided the long-proven standards-setting process and would substantially degrade consumer Wi-Fi service across the country."

At this point, the FCC has not officially joined the debate and is letting both sides argue the merits of their views, the story reported. FCC spokesman Neil Grace told the news agency that the FCC is "closely monitoring" the debate.

Unlicensed spectrum is used for things like garage door openers, cordless phones, baby monitors and WiFi networks.

WiFi calling capabilities on smartphones have been expanding with major mobile carriers for nearly a decade. In September 2014 T-Mobile unveiled WiFi calling for its customers as part of the company's WiFi Unleashed initiative. WiFi Unleashed gave customers the ability to make mobile calls using WiFi networks almost anywhere around the world, along with free texting, messaging and voice mail services on domestic airline flights that are served by Gogo.

Verizon is beginning to roll out WiFi calling on Dec. 8 to customers using Samsung Galaxy S6 or S6 Edge smartphones, according to a recent eWEEK story. WiFi calling will be available to Verizon customers who activate Verizon's Advanced Calling services, which enable HD Voice capabilities for improved sound quality, on their compatible devices. The WiFi calling services will enable customers to use the Wifi in their homes, businesses or in public places to make or receive calls.

The program will only include customers using these two Samsung devices to start, but additional Android phones and Apple iPhone models are expected to be added to the service early in 2016 via software updates.

In October, Sprint customers using iPhone 6s and 6s Plus smartphones received WiFi calling capabilities after Apple released its updated iOS 9.1 operating system, which included the function. Back in April, Sprint unveiled WiFi calling capabilities for customers with iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, iPhone 5c and iPhone 5s smartphones, but the latest iOS 9.1 update offers the capabilities to more iPhone models and added a shared-number capability. Sprint's WiFi calling lets users get an incoming phone call on one device and take the call on another device, whether it is their iPad, iPod Touch, Apple Watch or Mac computer. WiFi calling services are provided for free as part of Sprint's calling plans and can be used anywhere there is WiFi. Data used over WiFi networks also does not count against a customer's calling plan.

Sprint originally began offering WiFi calling services to many of its Android customers in February 2014, but Apple iPhone users were left out at that time and didn't have access to the fledgling WiFi calling capabilities. WiFi calls are free to any phone number in the United States, the U.S. Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico.

AT&T rolled out WiFi calling for iPhone 6s and iPhone 6 smartphones running iOS 9 earlier in October after receiving a waiver from the Federal Communications Commission for rules that require accommodations for hearing-impaired customers who rely on TTY services. The waiver, issued Oct. 6, was required because teletypewriter (TTY) services don't operate properly over WiFi networks. TTY services under FCC rules must be provided for telecommunications networks. TTY services allow voice communication to be relayed using typed words, rather than by voice. AT&T customers use their existing mobile phone numbers and are able to make and receive calls as they normally would on the cellular network. No separate app or configuration is needed. There are no additional costs for the service for calls to U.S. phone numbers.

Editor's note: The headline and first paragraph of this article have been corrected to clarify that Verizon proposes to use unlicensed spectrum for LTE-U. eWEEK regrets the error.