Wheeler Seeks Broad Support for Broad-Based LTE-U Standard

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler told an audience of wireless execs Wednesday that proponents of LTE-U and those concerned about sharing that new technology with existing unlicensed wireless need to agree on broad-based standards for LTE-U deployment that insure it does not interfere with unlicensed Wi-Fi.

He suggested the alternative—the FCC coming in and imposing standards—was an outcome not to be wished for.

LTE backers, like CTIA members Verizon and Qualcomm, have been at odds with the forces of cable Wi-Fi over opening up spectrum currently used by cable ops for their primary Wi-Fi play to telcos looking to create their own broadband hot spots via LTE-U (U for "unlicensed").

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. "If they can work together to achieve that," he said, "that's good." But, he said, "if some of the things that are envisioned end up affecting the ability of Wi-Fi to deliver, that's bad."

Wheeler put in a plug for dealing with that tension through the traditional route of a broad-based standards process—something the cable operators have been seeking assurances would be the FCC approach. He said he was not talking about a focused process playing to one clique or another, but a "broad-based standard that can wrestle through all these interference and co-existence problems."

He added a note of warning, or advice, to both sides of the issue to work together, or else. He said that standards process is "far preferable"—he then repeated "far preferable for emphasis"—"to us coming in and saying, 'OK, you can't do it, we'll do it.'"

Wheeler said he was looking to that standards process to answer some key questions about LTE-U, with a "wide base of involvement." The National Cable & Telecommunications Association has called for "true collaboration", by which it means  the FCC opening a new docket on the implications of allowing mobile operators to employ "non-standard" LTE unlicensed (LTE-U) technologies including LAA (license assisted access) in unlicensed spectrum, which the cable trade group argues could degrade Wi-Fi service, cable operators' primary mobile broadband play.

Wheeler said he did not know when those standards broad-based standards would be produced. "It's up to them," he said. But he pointed out that the FCC had recently sent letters to both sides saying: "Time out, we want to know how you are going to address these kinds of things." The FCC is not yet approving LTE-U divides until those issues are resolved, so he said he thought there was incentive on both the licensed and unlicensed sides to get together.

CTIA responded in a statement following the speech.

“We are confident that LTE-U will benefit consumers, competition and innovation," said Scott Bergmann, VP, regulatory affairs.

"Unlicensed spectrum has always offered an opportunity for permission-less innovation and we look forward to continuing to educate all stakeholders about the benefits of LTE Unlicensed.”

Verizon has argued that there is a mounting "mountain of tests [confirming] that LTE-U (designed specifically to operate on unlicensed spectrum) neither congests Wi-Fi networks nor interferes with Wi-Fi services or devices, and in some cases the presence of LTE-U actually improves Wi-Fi performance."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.