Is LTE-U the Answer to the Spectrum Crunch?

With more and more noise surrounding a potential spectrum crunch, the United States’ ability to manufacture innovative solutions to this obstacle is critical. The world is going mobile, and as a result, consumers need to feel confident that their ability to surf the web, stream high quality video, and download apps at lightning fast speeds won’t be impinged upon by a lack of available spectrum.

For those who are unfamiliar, spectrum fuels wireless technology and innovation. Most importantly, there is a finite amount, meaning that we cannot manufacture or magically conjure more of it into existence. According to Dr. Thomas Lenard, President and Senior Fellow at the Technology Policy Institute, the government holds between 60 to 70 percent of the spectrum suitable for wireless broadband. The government needs to reallocate unused or fallow spectrum, but we also must be diligent and find creative solutions to solve this challenge. Luckily the government is taking steps in the right direction, and the recent Budget Deal includes a provision mandating the FCC and Department of Commerce to identify 30 MHz of government spectrum for commercial use.

However more still needs to be done, and one of the solutions currently in the works is to use LTE-U, or unlicensed spectrum, to carry excess traffic in heavily congested areas.

Most of us know the frustration of being unable to get online or access the Internet when we’re at a shopping mall or a concert. To alleviate this all too common point of irritation, LTE-U will allow wireless providers to offload traffic in densely congested areas onto the unlicensed 5GHz frequency. This will allow wireless providers to boost speeds and connectivity to benefit consumers.

Sounds great, right? Well it turns out not everyone is so sure.

Opponents of LTE-U claim that the problem with it lies right there within its name. Unlicensed spectrum, specifically the 5GHz variety on which LTE-U plans to operate, is also the same frequency that Wi-Fi uses. The fear that Google and the National Cable & Telecommunications Agency have is that since LTE-U and Wi-Fi will be sharing the same frequency, the presence of LTE-U will degrade the existing quality of Wi-Fi. However these concerns are unsubstantiated.

LTE-U is not meant to replace, but instead supplement LTE’s quality of service in areas of dense congestion (i.e. stadiums, shopping malls, or concert venues). In addition, a recent study coming out of Japan found evidence that LTE-U is 1.6 times more bandwidth efficient than Wi-Fi. As Roslyn Layton eloquently stated, what this means in layman’s terms is that, “…LTE-U may be a better neighbor to Wi-Fi than Wi-Fi is to itself.”

The bottom line is that wireless carriers are facing a huge explosion in demand, and LTE-U offers a practical and benign solution that serves to boost speeds and connectivity. It is a consumer-friendly advance.

A balanced spectrum portfolio is important to wireless technology innovation, and any company that is willing to play by the rules should be free to utilize the public assets that are available to them.

Wi-Fi is a crucial component of spurring an innovative economy. As FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel correctly notes, “We need more Wi-Fi because in a world of constant connections it is responsible for billions of dollars of economic activity—and growth.” The Wi-Fi Alliance maintains that the worldwide economic value of Wi-Fi in 2013 was over $200 billion, and this number is only going to grow.

The ability for LTE-U to boost speeds and connectivity for consumers without infringing on the quality of Wi-Fi seems to be a win-win for everyone. Just this week, Verizon filed a request with FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler in the hopes that he will allow them to offer native Wi-Fi Calling. It would be nonsensical for wireless providers to propose a technology that would hamper the quality of a resource they rely on as well.

We should certainly encourage the FCC to ensure there is efficient compatibility between LTE-U and Wi-Fi while leading the way to unleash new swaths of licensed and unlicensed spectrum. With the proper set of non-burdensome, clearly defined rules to the pathway in place, the marketplace should embrace LTE-U as a rational solution to a perplexing challenge that is only getting worse every time a new wireless device gets activated.


Eli Love is chief of staff at CALinnovates.