Verizon, Qualcomm set to supply controversial unlicensed LTE starting next year

The chips are almost ready and Verizon plans commercial service in 2016, but some Wi-Fi backers are worried

Verizon and Qualcomm are on track to extend LTE networks into Wi-Fi frequencies by the end of next year despite a heated controversy over whether that would slow down wireless LANs. 

Verizon will start field trials of LTE-Unlicensed in October, aiming for a commercial launch next year, executives said during a briefing at the company's Innovation Center in San Francisco on Friday. Qualcomm demonstrated chips for mobile devices and small cells and said they would show up in products around the middle of 2016.

LTE-U has drawn fire from Google, the Wi-Fi Alliance, cable operators and others who say the technology might effectively squeeze Wi-Fi out of the spectrum it depends on. That spectrum is unlicensed, meaning any device approved by the Federal Communications Commission can use it as long as it meets a few criteria, but LTE-U would allow cellular networks to use much of the important 5GHz unlicensed band. 

Critics say there's evidence that starting up an LTE radio in the same band as nearby Wi-Fi networks would make it harder for Wi-Fi to use the spectrum. Some fear carriers will use the degradation of Wi-Fi to draw users over to their paid networks, which will keep using licensed spectrum as well and be able to fall back on that.

The debate is playing out in a public comment process at the FCC and in meetings that have brought together proponents of both sides. Getting LTE-U off the ground will only be a matter of finding a compromise both sides can agree to, according to some industry analysts. Regulations in Europe will require a different type of technology called LAA (Licensed Assisted Access) that is expected to take longer to complete.

Qualcomm and Verizon streamed an LTE-U demonstration for reporters from a Qualcomm lab in San Diego. The test showed how nine Wi-Fi networks performed when forced to share one channel with each other, then what happened when one of the Wi-Fi access points was replaced by an LTE-U cell.

Based on real-time graphs, it appeared that average network throughput didn't decline but in fact was slightly higher after the LTE-U gear came on. That's the typical result from such tests, which Qualcomm has carried out and demonstrated many times, said Mingxi Fan, vice president of engineering at Qualcomm.

Verizon plans to conduct small field trials of LTE-U in two areas of the U.S. beginning in October, said Ed McFadden, vice president of policy communications. T-Mobile USA has also said it plans to use LTE-U.

Qualcomm demonstrated prototypes built with its Snapdragon 820 mobile device processor and a chip from its FSM99xx series for network infrastructure. Those chips are due to ship later this year and should appear in commercial deployments around the middle of next year, Qualcomm says. 

Nokia, Alcatel-Lucent and Samsung have announced plans for network products equipped for LTE-U. Qualcomm says not all of those products will be made with its silicon.

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