Qualcomm may adapt LTE into a network anyone can deploy

The company is exploring a way to use LTE in unlicensed spectrum alone

A new type of wireless network, based on LTE but running solely on unlicensed spectrum, is in the works at Qualcomm Research.

A new type of wireless network, based on LTE but running solely on unlicensed spectrum, is in the works at Qualcomm Research.

As if the all the controversy over LTE networks crowding out Wi-Fi isn't enough, a new technology in the works at Qualcomm Research might allow a lot more people to set them up.

LTE was designed to run on frequencies licensed by mobile operators for their exclusive use. But an emerging technology called LTE-Unlicensed allows the cellular system to supplement those frequencies with unlicensed spectrum that's shared with systems like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. This gives the carriers additional spectrum that they don't have to pay for in an auction.

Wireless providers including T-Mobile USA, Verizon Wireless and SK Telecom are already looking into LTE-Unlicensed. But some Wi-Fi proponents, including Google and the Wi-Fi Alliance, warn that LTE transmissions in the 5GHz unlicensed band might crowd out Wi-Fi users. An emerging variant of the technology, called LAA (Licensed-Assisted Access) is designed to ease those concerns and the Wi-Fi Alliance says it's working with the LTE standards group 3GPP to ensure coexistence.

So far, unlicensed LTE has been designed for network operators that already have licensed frequencies. They plan to use unlicensed spectrum for data downloads while keeping other traffic, such as voice calls, on a cellular band. But a new technology in the works at Qualcomm would form "LTE-based" networks using unlicensed spectrum alone. It could allow businesses, cable companies, hotspot operators and big venues like sports stadiums to deploy LTE instead of Wi-Fi wherever they wanted, without any licenses.

Qualcomm says its new system, called MuLTEfire, would deliver "LTE-like" performance, like enhanced capacity and range, while being easy to deploy like Wi-Fi. It won't hurt nearby Wi-Fi users, the company says. Indeed, Qualcomm claims that using unlicensed LTE instead of Wi-Fi can actually improve the experience of nearby Wi-Fi users because LTE is more efficient. But if MuLTEfire catches on -- presumably under a catchier name -- it may lead to a lot more LTE networks vying for unlicensed airwaves.

That's a big "if." Wi-Fi already has LTE beat for cheap, ubiquitous radios in mobile devices, and the unlicensed variant of LTE is a new one that will take time to show up in devices. So it's hard to see why anyone would choose LTE over Wi-Fi for a new unlicensed network, analyst Peter Jarich of Current Analysis said.

First of all, even though private businesses could deploy a fully unlicensed LTE network, it's unlikely they would, analysts say. Enterprise Wi-Fi is so mature and available from so many vendors that companies would have no reason to get involved in a whole new technology that was designed for carriers.

Where LTE does have an edge over Wi-Fi is in advanced, standardized mechanisms for things like subscriber authentication, policy-based management and coordinating among base stations. Those features might make it easier to set up a service-provider network with MuLTEfire than with Wi-Fi, analysts said.

Some emerging service providers have expressed interest in LTE for use solely in unlicensed spectrum, according to Tolaga Research analyst Phil Marshall. In addition to cable operators that want to supplement their services with mobile, adopters might include wireless carriers that can't get spectrum licenses in all the places they want to serve. That might mean, for example, AT&T setting up LTE service in foreign countries on unlicensed spectrum, but it's more likely to be a strategy for service providers in Europe that want to cross borders, Marshall said.

"There's a few scenarios that work, but obviously the ecosystem has to be developed," Marshall said.

Wi-Fi network operators and vendors have worked for years to match cellular in one area: the ability to roam onto and among different networks. Hotspot 2.0 technology has been gradually refined and is in use on some networks, but the ease of use it's promised has fallen short, Jarich said. That might be behind efforts to bring LTE into the Wi-Fi band, he said.

"The experience hasn't been there," Jarich said. "Is that part of what's going on here?"

Qualcomm itself may be a major force in determining if unlicensed-only LTE catches on. The company says it's working to develop industry-wide specifications for the technology. Qualcomm's commanding share of the mobile-device silicon market might give it the influence to bring MuLTEfire -- or whatever it's eventually called -- to scale.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

Join the Good Gear Guide newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags 4gtelecommunicationNetworkingwirelessqualcommmobileWLANs / Wi-Fi

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Stephen Lawson

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Crucial Ballistix Elite 32GB Kit (4 x 8GB) DDR4-3000 UDIMM

Learn more >

Gadgets & Things

Lexar® Professional 1000x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards

Learn more >

Family Friendly

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Plox Star Wars Death Star Levitating Bluetooth Speaker

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

GGG Evaluation Team

Kathy Cassidy

STYLISTIC Q702

First impression on unpacking the Q702 test unit was the solid feel and clean, minimalist styling.

Anthony Grifoni

STYLISTIC Q572

For work use, Microsoft Word and Excel programs pre-installed on the device are adequate for preparing short documents.

Steph Mundell

LIFEBOOK UH574

The Fujitsu LifeBook UH574 allowed for great mobility without being obnoxiously heavy or clunky. Its twelve hours of battery life did not disappoint.

Andrew Mitsi

STYLISTIC Q702

The screen was particularly good. It is bright and visible from most angles, however heat is an issue, particularly around the Windows button on the front, and on the back where the battery housing is located.

Simon Harriott

STYLISTIC Q702

My first impression after unboxing the Q702 is that it is a nice looking unit. Styling is somewhat minimalist but very effective. The tablet part, once detached, has a nice weight, and no buttons or switches are located in awkward or intrusive positions.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?