One of the great things about Wi-Fi is that those airwaves are available to anyone.

If you have a Wi-Fi router, you can set up a Wi-Fi network. That includes homeowners, the coffee shop on the corner and the office building down the street, as well as big tech outfits like Google, which has long pushed to build Wi-Fi networks that span entire cities. Wi-Fi uses what’s called unlicensed wireless spectrum. You needn’t pay the government for an exclusive license to launch a network. You just need government-approved hardware.

Now, imagine if cell phone networks worked that way—if any company with government-approved hardware could create a network in that spectrum. That could improve cell coverage. And it could foster greater competition among wireless carriers, potentially lowering prices and giving us more freedom to move between providers.

This is more than an idle thought. Various companies—including wireless carrier Verizon, chip maker Qualcomm, and handset maker Samsung—are pushing toward technology that would make this possible. It’s controversial, because some worry the technology will interfere with existing Wi-Fi networks. And certainly, the companies backing the tech are looking to further their own ends—namely, pushing more people onto their networks. But if the technological issues can be ironed out, this movement could prove beneficial to consumers.

“Mobile data usage is exploding worldwide, so we need to increase mobile capacity—by many orders of magnitude,” says Dean Brenner, senior vice president of government affairs at Qualcomm, which hopes to cell phone chips that can drive these new wireless technologies. “People want more, better broadband. That’s unquestionably true, and they want it as soon as possible. That’s the need we’re trying to fulfill here.”

Running Interference

These technologies go by many names, and, in typical tech industry fashion, they’re all dreadful: LTE-U, LAA, and MulteFire. Essentially, they’re all efforts to use the Wi-Fi (5GHz) spectrum to build networks based on LTE, the wireless networking standard now used by all the major US carriers. But each is a little different.

LTE-U and LAA allow existing carriers to use the Wi-Fi spectrum in tandem with the licensed spectrum where they’re already using LTE. In other words, Verizon could use LTE-U to expand the reach of its existing LTE network. The difference is that a small group of companies, including Verizon and Qualcomm, have bootstrapped LTE-U, while LAA is gestating within an international cellular standards organization called 3GPP. As these two technologies evolve, there will be technical differences.

Meanwhile, MulteFire would let companies operate LTE over the Wi-Fi spectrum even if they aren’t running LTE elsewhere. So Google, for example, could use MulteFire to establish its own cellular network in the spectrum, even though it hasn’t licensed cellular spectrum from the government. This could, in theory, open the market to a whole new list of players. “The goal is to allow unlicensed spectrum to become a third broadband pipe,” says Richard Bennett, a networking expert who helped define the Wi-Fi specification.

The question is whether any of these technologies—still in various stages of development—will interfere with today’s Wi-Fi networks. That’s not something Google wants (its services also are delivered over Wi-Fi and the broadband wireline Internet services that are accessed over Wi-Fi). And it’s not something cable companies like Comcast want (they provide some of those broadband wireline services). Both object to these projects as they stand.

“We see some risks around how this technology is being developed, and it could cause real disruption for consumers,” says Rob Alderfer, vice president of technology policy at Cablelabs, an organization that does research and development for the cable industry. Cablelabs is concerned that LTE-U doesn’t use a “listen before talk” model, where the handset will listen to see if others are broadcasting before broadcasting itself.

Better for Everyone?

Qualcomm, which originally developed LTE-U, claims the technology will not cause problems with existing infrastructure. “It can coexist with Wi-Fi,” says Mingxi Fan, a Qualcomm vice president of engineering who helped launch the original the project. Fan says that early LTE-U devices interfere less with Wi-Fi hardware than competing Wi-Fi hardware devices interfere with each other. And the company believes that if the technology is rolled out, it will benefit the very businesses that now object to it.

“If this lives up to its claims,” says Bennett, “it’s a perfectly sensible thing for the people who are now complaining about it to adopt.”

Indeed, so much of Google’s business now relies on mobile phones, and with a service called Project Fi, the company is now a wireless carrier in its own right, piggybacking on existing services from T-Mobile and Sprint. Its incentive to back LTE over the Wi-Fi spectrum would only increase if MulteFire works as promised. What Google wants, after all, is an open market for wireless service.

Alderfer of CableLabs is adamant that these technologies must be thoroughly tested before they’re pushed into the marketplace. But even he stops short of questioning the basic idea. “Fundamentally, we’re not opposed to the use of LTE in unlicensed spectrum,” he says. “We just want to see if constructed in a way that improves the wireless experience for everyone.”

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