Operators hoping to get LTE-Unlicensed (LTE-U) technologies up and running on their networks by the end of this year may end up disappointed thanks to a frustratingly slow regulatory process at the FCC.
The FCC first began investigating LTE-U and Licensed Assisted Access (LAA) technologies in earnest in May 2015, when the Office of Engineering and Technology issued a public notice seeking more information on the technologies. Two months after the deadline for comments closed in June 2015, the commission followed up with a letter asking for supplemental information in August 2015.
But while a steady stream of filings has flowed in since then, the FCC has taken precious little action.
According to a March 2016 letter from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to several U.S. senators, “significant steps remain before LTE-U can be considered for commercial deployment.”
Part of the holdup appears to be concerns from the Wi-Fi community about LTE-U’s ability to fairly co-exist with Wi-Fi on the unlicensed bands.
An FCC spokesman said Monday the commission has encouraged the industry to collaboratively resolve these concerns, and the industry has been doing just that. In announcing its trials with Verizon, Qualcomm said it would be using a draft co-existence test framework developed in collaboration with the Wi-Fi Alliance in an attempt to show LTE-U technology will not adversely impact Wi-Fi.
A spokeswoman from the Wi-Fi Alliance was not immediately available to provide an update on the group’s progress or view on LTE-U.
According to Qualcomm’s senior director of business development Mazen Chmaytelli, the company has completed “a lot of testing and simulation to prove we’re not only sharing spectrum in a fair manner but we’re coexisting with Wi-Fi as a good neighbor.”
“We’re actually as nice to Wi-Fi as another Wi-Fi access point,” Chmaytelli said. “We don’t want to go in there and disturb things, actually the reverse, we want to make sure everyone’s sharing fairly and everyone’s benefitting from the technology.”
Chmaytelli said the company is “pretty far along” in its development of commercial LTE-U technology. Chmaytelli said chipsets for mobile devices have been available since October and Qualcomm is now in the commercial sample stage of developing LTE-U chipsets for small cells. Once the small cell chipsets are finalized, they’ll be ready to ship in three to nine months, he said.
Chmaytelli said Qualcomm is on track to honor the requirements for potential LTE-U launches in the latter portion of this year.
But whether or not those deployments will actually occur is increasingly in question.
Lacking rules for the new technology, Wheeler said in his letter experimental LTE-U device operations at new locations will require FCC authorization and LTE-U devices will require equipment authorization from the FCC Laboratory before they can be marketed in the United States.
All of this makes for one very exasperating situation for U.S. operators – like Verizon and T-Mobile – who had hoped to deploy the technology in the second half of 2016.
T-Mobile executives have made no secret of their frustration with the slow rulemaking process.
During the Un-carrier’s first quarter earnings call, T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray said the operator is still hoping to deploy LTE-U technology this year but is beginning to lose faith that the regulatory process will allow for such a timeline.
“I'll tell you there we're frustrated and we're not seeing the progress that we would like to see,” Ray said. “We still have an ambition to push solutions into the marketplace inside 2016. But based on where we are from a regulatory perspective at this point in time, the light is dimming there a little.”
Verizon did not respond to a request for comment for this article.