Unlicensed LTE backers take fight to the streets

Verizon, AT&T, Qualcomm and others have formed a coalition to promote systems for using LTE in the same band as Wi-Fi

Some of the biggest carriers and mobile technology vendors in the U.S. have banded together to defend unlicensed LTE, a technology that some opponents fear could slow down Wi-Fi.

Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile USA are among the founding members of Evolve, an organization that says it will bring the case for unlicensed LTE to the public. Qualcomm and Alcatel-Lucent are also on board, along with both major trade groups representing U.S. carriers.

Unlicensed LTE is a set of technologies for transmitting LTE signals in unlicensed spectrum, specifically the 5GHz band that is commonly used for Wi-Fi. Initially it's designed to make downloads faster in areas where mobile operators' licensed spectrum isn't enough to serve all subscribers. Once phones are equipped for it, the system should be invisible to users. 

Google, some cable operators and the Wi-Fi Alliance have said unlicensed LTE could effectively squeeze Wi-Fi networks out of the band, which is where most channels available to Wi-Fi are found. The way the new system monitors and chooses radio channels would be unfair to Wi-Fi, the critics say. 

The Federal Communications Commission has looked into the debate with a call for public comments, and given the lobbying power of the mobile operator and cable industries, it could end up sparking a battle in Congress. 

Evolve says it will use speaking engagements, consumer education and dialog with policymakers to promote the benefits of new technologies in unlicensed spectrum. That spectrum is open to any technology as long as it shares the frequencies fairly, which the backers say unlicensed LTE does. 

Regulators should reject calls to "preemptively interfere" with new systems like unlicensed LTE, Evolve said. 

Qualcomm is a major driver behind unlicensed, holding numerous demonstrations to show that it won't hurt Wi-Fi. The company plans to ship unlicensed LTE chips for devices and networks later this year. Evolve also includes CTIA, the main industry group for U.S. mobile operators, and the Competitive Carriers Association, which represents regional and rural carriers.

The group came under fire just hours after its launch on Monday. The New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, a public policy group, said Evolve promotes the value of unlicensed spectrum but is pushing a technology that could undermine competitors that make use of Wi-Fi. Those include wireline broadband providers as well as Wi-Fi calling providers like Republic Wireless, OTI said.

"In the end, it's a business conflict," said analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics. Unlicensed spectrum doesn't technically cost anything to use, but Wi-Fi equipment makers and cable operators that build hotspots around the country for their subscribers make a lot of money off Wi-Fi, he said. 

Mobile carriers want to get into the 5GHz band because they don't see any place to get more spectrum after the FCC's upcoming incentive auction of TV frequencies, Entner said. They fear running out of spectrum to handle consumers' growing use of video and other bandwidth-hungry services.

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