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Cable’s Friends in High (Band) Places

WASHINGTON — Cable operators concerned about the deployment of LTE-U technology in unlicensed spectrum used for cable WiFi have a big ally: Microsoft.

In meetings with Federal Communications Commission officials about LTE-U (Long Term Evolution-Unlicensed), a technology cellular carriers want to deploy for their own competitive WiFi offload offering, a representative of the computer giant joined representatives of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and members Comcast and Cablevision Systems. The companies told the FCC that while they do not oppose the deployment of LTE-U, a rigorous standards- setting process is necessary to ensure it is deployed in a way that “benefits consumers and supports innovation.”

They also pointed out that joint testing by Google and CableLabs has shown that, as currently constituted, LTE-U-compliant devices (new hardware including phones and tablets) “would substantially undermine Wi-Fi consumers.”

Verizon, T-Mobile and Qualcomm have all told the FCC that their testing shows the technology can be deployed in the 5-Gigahertz band — which cable operators use for WiFi — without causing harmful interference.

They point to the work that the LTE-U Forum (members are Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, LG Electronics, Samsung Electronics, Qualcomm and Verizon) has done to ensure LTE-U and WiFi can coexist peacefully.

Microsoft and the NCTA are in no way convinced. They dismissed the forum, saying it’s not a standards-setting body, has restricted membership and is a group that “did not engage in the type of coordination needed to protect consumers.”

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has said he wants the two sides to work it out, which he said would be preferable to the FCC stepping in. Cable providers say they want to work it out, too, but believe the agency will need to flex some muscle to ensure LTE-U will not jeopardize WiFi.

Harold Feld, senior vice president of public-interest group Public Knowledge, said both sides have legitimate points, and the FCC will probably need to step in, at least to provide a way to resolve the dispute.