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Common Cause: Protecting WiFi

WASHINGTON — Consolidation critics and big cable companies are usually on opposite sides of the regulatory fence, but that’s not the case with the issue of the wireless industry’s effort to offer an unlicensed data-offload option in competition to cable-delivered WiFi.

The Federal Communications Commission recently made 3.5-Gigahertz spectrum available for licensed and unlicensed use, and is eyeing freeing up more unlicensed spectrum in the 5 GHz band.

Some wireless companies, notably Qualcomm and Verizon Communications, have approached the FCC about employing LTE unlicensed (LTE-U) wireless and Licensed Assisted Access (LAA) technologies they said can coexist alongside WiFi to the benefit of consumers.

In the LAA model, licensed spectrum is used as the primary channel for unlicensed devices.

While some wireless carriers have argued that cable-operator pushback is a case of “not in my backyard” protectionism for their WiFi service from wireless competitors, public-interest advocacy groups Free Press, Common Cause and Public Knowledge have no backyard to protect.


The three public-interest groups have joined the National Cable & Telecommunications Association in asking the FCC to take a trust-but-verify approach to the wireless proposal by having the agency keep close tabs on the process and ensure the LTE-U/LAA deployment does not interfere with or unfairly disadvantage WiFi, which has become cable’s chief wireless-broadband play.

They recommend that the FCC require that no deployment occur ahead of standards for peaceful coexistence with WiFi.

The public-interest groups are focused on the potential for anticompetitive behavior.

They argue that sharing standards are baked into WiFi that allow for connectivity without permission, rather than a command- and-control approach.

By contrast, they said, LTE-U and LAA are designed to be “centrally controlled by a network anchored in a separate, exclusively-licensed frequency band.”

“The Public Interest Organizations are particularly concerned that mobile carriers will have both the ability and strong incentives to use LTE-U and LAA to engage in anticompetitive behavior harmful to consumers, while for the first time being able to charge consumers for the use of unlicensed spectrum,” they said in an FCC filing.

Carriers also have powerful incentives to use LTE-U to deter mobile market entry by “WiFi-first” providers, such as wireline Internet-service providers, they told the FCC.

Qualcomm, a strong proponent of LET-U and LAA, told the FCC it has demonstrated the technology to WiFi equipment vendors and service providers and they clearly demonstrate the technology can co-exist with WiFi, even promoting it as a “friendly neighbor.”

The NCTA was not feeling like Mr. Rogers with regard to that potential new neighbor, at least not without close and official oversight of how the new technology will work with the standards-setting process.

Specifically, NCTA and its public advocacy friends want the FCC to:

(1) “Convene a meeting of the chief of the Office of Engineering and Technology and a representative group of licensed carriers and the unlicensed community to initiate a process to establish effective sharing mechanisms;

(2) “Establish a working group composed of commission staff and engineers from interested parties to carry forth this work after this initial meeting in weekly meetings;

(3) “Seek monthly status reports from [standards groups] IEEE and 3GPP on the progress of coordination between these bodies on establishing effective sharing; and

(4) “Ensure that licensees do not launch nonstandard versions of LTE-U until these processes have been completed to the commission’s satisfaction.”


The public-interest groups are also focused on the LAA portion of the proposal. The “assist” in LAA is using licensed spectrum to anchor the unlicensed service. Public Knowledge and Common Cause are afraid that is a way to move the unlicensed model from free to paid.

CTIA: The Wireless Association said that is not happening and the FCC should reject it. “The record shows that industry is developing a standalone version of LTE-U that will operate exclusively in unlicensed spectrum and will be available to all users.”