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LTE-U: The mobile industry’s attack on Wi-Fi – and why it won’t be successful

By Claus Hetting   /     Nov 11, 2014  /     Uncategorized  /  

A while ago I came across this commercial by Verizon Wireless: ‘Get Verizon 4G and reduce your dependence on Wi-Fi’. Yes, many big MNOs are worried about Wi-Fi and well they should be. Wi-Fi now carries 80+% of 4G-capable smartphone traffic in many Western countries including in the US.

A big part of the mobile-industrial complex that I’ve blogged about before is in trouble. Enter the latest attempt at taking back market control: LTE-U. LTE-U is basically 4G in unlicensed (Wi-Fi) bands. The concept was first introduced by Qualcomm and is now being supported among others by Ericsson and Nokia.

In short LTE-U is the mobile industry’s attempt at invading the Wi-Fi bands with a technology that only mobile carriers would ever use. Here are my reasons why I think LTE-U is a terrible idea that will never fly:

Firstly, LTE-U and Wi-Fi will never peacefully coexist at the technical (radio) level. Most attempts by 3GPP to incorporate non-3GPP technology have failed (perhaps with the exception of ‘trusted non-3GPP access’ for Wi-Fi offload which works very well and makes commercial sense)

Although vendors will tell you that Wi-Fi and LTE-U is a perfect marriage, I do not believe that it is. Who in the Wi-Fi industry would want to align future Wi-Fi standards to LTE-U? No matter what the 3GPP proposes to do, the Wi-Fi industry would have no incentive to cooperate. And as you know, it takes two to tango.

The second reason is more important: LTE-U is a solution looking for a problem. Wi-Fi is already delivering all the capacity the market wants and has been doing this for a long time at a fraction of the cost to billions of devices. Consumers stand to gain nothing from LTE-U other than continued high prices for mobile connectivity.

So what’s the motivation for trying to introduce mobile technology in Wi-Fi bands?

The only parts of the ecosystem that would stand to benefit from LTE-U are the telco vendors and possibly some of the carriers. This is because only carriers would ever think of introducing a new radio technology that is many times the cost of Wi-Fi. Add to this the complications of introducing a new ecosystem for LTE-U including not least device support.

Would Apple and Google ever support LTE-U? I would be surprised if they did.

Meanwhile the capacity/cost ratio of Wi-Fi continues to decrease in leaps. I believe that there can be no reversing back up the capacity/cost curve for wireless delivery (for more about this see this video) – which is what LTE-U is trying to do.

In the end economics and common sense will prevail.

For more about how public Wi-Fi is transforming the telco world don’t miss the Wi-Fi Innovation Summit coming up in the great city of Copenhagen, Denmark on December 9-10. We’re bringing together the entire public Wi-Fi industry for this unique 2-day event. Join us :)

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