Sep 24, 2020
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How LTE-U In Unlicensed Spectrum Helps Carriers Make Money

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As our world becomes increasingly wirelessly connected there’s a never-ending demand for more spectrum to house the bandwidth needs of all our devices. This challenge was coined by Qualcomm in 2013 as the 1000x challenge saying that wireless networks sooner or later will require 1000x the capacity of today. For this reason many companies in the wireless industry are looking for easy methods to meet these increased capacity demands and one of those ways is utilizing unlicensed spectrum


This effort has been primarily led by Qualcomm but has gained adoption around the wireless industry so as to alleviate the stresses at the existing networks utilizing licensed spectrum. The spectrum challenge forces carriers to be creative The desire for more spectrum is a never ending one and currently the mobile carriers are generally starved for the spectrum that they must deliver the speedier and faster speeds that today s modems are increasingly capable of


This need is driven by consumer s insatiable demand to do more with their mobile devices like phones and tablets plus the addition of new devices like wearables connected cars and IoT (Internet of Things) categories like smart cities. Carriers currently operate on licensed spectrum in small blocks of up to 20 MHz and as small as 5 MHz however this is generally not enough to deliver an outstanding amount of bandwidth to most customers in most countries


The cause of this is because a good number of the frequencies that mobile carriers operate at also are a similar frequencies that TV stations used to operate at or currently operate at. For this reason there’s a constant look ahead to the government to disencumber these spectrum blocks for use by mobile carriers


Government procedures vary wildly from country to country and so do the frequency blocks that they make available to carriers. Additionally not all frequencies are used a similar in every city which further complicates the spectrum problem. When government spectrum does become available it can cost billions to tap into


Unlicensed spectrum one of the solutions The proposed solution around this problem is using LTE in the unlicensed spectrum often known as LTE-U. LTE-U is not the end option to the spectrum problem but merely an alternative source of spectrum in regions or markets where there may not be much to work with


The unlicensed spectrum operates within a similar frequencies where Wi-Fi and many open wireless standards exist. So naturally it is easy to also accomplish similar results with LTE/Wi-Fi link aggregation however this solution has less range than LTE-U and may not be as popular among carriers. LTE-U is designed to take advantage of the available unlicensed spectrum and not to interfere with existing Wi-Fi installations and access points


Coexisting with Wi-Fi There are certain features within LTE-U which are designed to ensure that it doesn’t cause problems for the existing Wi-Fi ecosystem including such things as Adaptive Duty Cycles Listen Before Talk and conformance testing that Qualcomm expects to be more rigorous than Wi-Fi. LTE-U is already part of the 3GPP Release 13 standard which is expected to be released in 2016 which aligns with Qualcomm s expected chipsets deployments in both their small cell and mobile SoCs with LTE-U


However Qualcomm is not waiting until then and is trying to enable early deployments through technologies like adaptive duty cycle. Early markets like the United States Korea and China already have the right spectrum allocations to enable this before Release 13 in 2016 with such technologies while others will have to wait later until 3GPP Release 13 where they’ll still have to apply Listen Before Talk in order to be compliant with regulations in places like Japan and Europe


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VT Engage Rally The Youth Vote On Campus LTE-U is also spoke of by the 3GPP as LAA (the 3GPP standard name for unlicensed spectrum) and many carriers consult with it as their implementation of LTE-U along side licensed spectrum


Qualcomm made a gigantic LTE-U splash at this year s MWC (Credit: Patrick Moorhead) Complementing Wi-Fi From the demonstrations that I used to be shown at Mobile World Congress (MWC) there were clear advantages to Wi-Fi simply by using LTE-U. Qualcomm showed how adding LTE-U access points to crowded Wi-Fi environments can actually steadily increase the general performance of the aggregate networks


Qualcomm showed maximum configurations of 8 APs (access points) starting with all Wi-Fi and finally reaching 4 Wi-Fi APs and four LTE-U APs which yielded the greatest overall bandwidth. They also showed how someone LTE-U AP has overall better performance than a single Wi-Fi AP simply by Wi-Fi crowding. This means that simply switching a single Wi-Fi AP to LTE-U not just helps the users connecting to that small cell but it also decongests the Wi-Fi network overall and leads to faster speeds for all those around using Wi-Fi for data or for link aggregation with LTE


Wrapping up… Qualcomm s small cell and mobile SoC solutions for LTE-U are specifically designed to both complement and coexist with Wi-Fi in ways that benefit everyone. The carriers get more spectrum to work with which ultimately leads to faster speeds for consumers and it also can help reduce Wi-Fi interference which admittedly isn t much of a difficulty at the moment in the 5 GHz band but would be sooner or later as more than more APs transition to 802


11ac. This will bring about better speeds for the Wi-Fi users in addition those which are connected to an LTE network and are using LTE-U for supplemental bandwidth. There have already been various major announcements from major players committing to LTE-U consisting of Verizon Communications which recently announced it had completed tests for 2016 in the 3


5 and 5 GHz unlicensed spectrum. T-Mobile US has an even more aggressive commitment with their CTO Neville Ray committing back in 2014 that they would be using LAA (License Assisted Access) in the 5GHz spectrum band as early as the end of 2015. NTT DoCoMo and Huawei have already started joint testing of LAA and are pleased to announce that they have already seen successful field results


However LTE-U and LAA aren’t without opposition as the Wi-Fi Alliance has voiced some concerns about the risks of LTE-U and LAA coexisting with Wi-Fi in the 5GHz band. However Qualcomm appears to have already addressed many of these concerns and the 3GPP Release 13 standard appears to further address them for the longer term


Additionally Qualcomm is also a large player in the Wi-Fi market and it might be foolish to assume that they would jeopardize their Wi-Fi business for the sake of LTE-U. They have clearly shown coexistence isn’t just possible but also beneficial to Wi-Fi and LTE users alike. You are able to find Patrick Moorhead President & Principal Analyst of Moor Insights & Strategy on the web  Twitter  LinkedIn and Google+


Note: Anshel Sag staff technologist and technical writer at Moor Insights & Strategy contributed to this article. Disclosure: My firm  Moor Insights & Strategy  like any research and analyst firms provides or has provided research analysis advising and/or consulting to many high-tech companies Qualcomm cited in this article. No employees at the firm hold any equity positions with any companies cited in this column

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