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Coalition Pushing Hard for LTE-U

WASHINGTON — Mobile wireless operators have opened a new front in their push to use unlicensed spectrum to provide an alternative to cable-delivered WiFi mobile broadband service — and to boost their broadband speeds and capacity — by offloading Internet traffic to LTE-U (or LTE unlicensed), a new technology.

The new coalition, called EVOLVE, will promote the technology’s consumer benefits, such as increased data speeds and improved rural coverage, through lobbying in Washington and consumer education elsewhere. One lesson it plans to impart: LTE-U can coexist peacefully with cable WiFi and it is time to start rolling it out.

Cable operators and wireless companies have been sparring over the rollout of LTE-U, with MSOs arguing that standards need to first be put into place to prevent the new technology from interfering with existing WiFi networks. Wireless companies counter that LTE-U has already been tested and the FCC has the data to prove a lack of interference.

The takeaway from the new coalition is that there is “tremendous unity” behind LTE-U in the wireless industry, Qualcomm senior vice president of government affairs Dean Brenner said. All of the major wireless carriers have invested heavily in WiFi and also support that technology, he added.

“The last thing that any of us would do is do anything that has an adverse effect on WiFi,” Brenner said.

INTERFERENCE ARGUMENT

Cable operators have told the FCC they are not convinced LTE-U isn’t being rushed to market, while the coalition said last week there are “mountains” of evidence that it’s ready to go.

In a blog post last December looking at some of the challenges of sharing unlicensed spectrum, Joey Padden, lead architect at cable-technology consortium CableLabs, said that “while existing options appear to provide some level of channel sharing between Wi-Fi and LTE, there is a lot of work left to do before we see the fair and friendly coexistence solution that Wi-Fi users want.”

In meetings with top FCC officals in August, National Cable & Telecommunications Association senior vice president of law and regulatory policy Rick Chessen and Cable-Labs strategic principal analyst Rob Alderfer argued that without those standards, “tens of millions of Americans will see impairment of their broadband connections.”

Individual cable operators either weren’t commenting on the new coalition — the NCTA took a pass — or were taking a politic approach to the announcement, though they have made it clear they don’t think wireless operators should be rushing into anything.

Wifi Forward, a group that includes NCTA heavy hitters Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications, said it was fine with talking about coexistence.

“Everyone should have the ability to utilize and share the critical unlicensed bands,” the group said in a statement. “WifiForward welcomes diverse and robust conversations on how we can best promote, protect and advance innovation in these bands.

“We welcome efforts that enhance the wireless experience while successfully coexisting with other WiFi technologies,” the group added.

But WiFi Forward has made it clear that it does not want LTE-U to start rolling out until clear coexistence standards are in place.

Cable operators have allies in the public-interest community, which is also concerned about potential interference with unlicensed WiFi. In an FCC filing, Public Knowledge warned that without “robust coexistence” guarantees, LTE-U users could anticompetitively degrade the public’s use of WiFi in favor of their own LTE-U-only chips.

Brenner said last week that the watchword for LTE-U should be permissionless innovation, as it has been for unlicensed spectrum throughout its history. He said that does not mean new unlicensed technologies should “disrespect incumbents,” but added that LTE-U would not create any adverse effects and could even improve WiFi.

Verizon Communications vice president of public policy David Young said the plan was to start testing LTE-U as a business service this fall — it offers better coverage in office buildings — then start deploying it early next year. Given that buildings are heavy WiFi users, the test will be a chance to show how well the two technologies interoperate.

Founding members of the EVOLVE coalition are the Competitive Carriers Association, CTIA–The Wireless Association, Alcatel-Lucent, AT&T, Qualcomm (which pioneered LTE-U), T-Mobile and Verizon Communications.

Like a dad breaking up feuding kids, or an FCC chairman who likes to use the bully pulpit before the big stick, Tom Wheeler has encouraged wireless providers and cable operators to come to a meeting of the minds on the LTE-U rollout.

Such a compromise, he said, is preferable to the FCC stepping in to discipline the marketplace, as it were.

WHEELER: PLAY NICE

At a CTIA Super Mobility conference in Las Vegas, Wheeler talked about the FCC’s role in promoting LTE-U. He said there were “many flavors” of the technology, but that the keys were getting maximum efficiency out of both licensed and unlicensed versions.

“If they can work together to achieve that, that’s good,” he said. “If some of the things that are envisioned end up affecting the ability of WiFi to deliver, that’s bad.”

The FCC does not have to approve the rollout of LTE-U, the coalition said, but it does have to approve new devices to work with the new technology.

Competitive Carriers Association president Steve Berry said it was appropriate for the FCC to be the monitoring entity that makes sure all parties play fair in the “innovation sandbox” of unlicensed spectrum.