LTE-U vs. Wi-Fi: Wireless battle of the decade

“In 20 years of working in wireless, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said David Witkowski (President of WCA) on Wi-Fi NOW TV just 2 weeks ago. Yes, never has one wireless industry been pitted against another like this before.

The battle lines are clearly drawn: Big carriers & telco vendors on the LTE-U side (Qualcomm, Ericsson, Alcatel-Lucent, Verizon, T-Mobile, etc.) against – well – thus far the Wi-Fi Alliance, arguably Google, CableLabs, and handful of smaller Wi-Fi proponents (and evangelists, like myself!) on the other. The stakes are high on both sides.

But what’s this really about?

Like anything in big business, it’s not really about technology. It’s about power, money, and wireless world domination. Total mobile industry revenues are $3.3 trillion says Qualcomm & Boston Consulting Group. Last year US mobile carriers paid some 40 billion dollars for spectrum licenses. Spectrum is scarce and expensive so naturally the carriers & their supporting ecosystem are eyeing the unlicensed band with their preferred technology – and that’s LTE. Problem is that that spectrum is already serving billions of consumers with Wi-Fi.

According to DC-based lobbying organisation WiFiForward, Wi-Fi contributed $6.7 billion to US GDP in 2013. According to several sources, some 80% of mobile device traffic runs on Wi-Fi (for LTE-capable devices).

Just last week the Wi-Fi Alliance suggested that prospective LTE-U devices be certified by to ensure ‘fair sharing’ between Wi-Fi and LTE-U. That suggestion was blasted by the other side citing references to the FCC’s framework for unlicensed bands. The LTE-U side generally argue that all tests show that LTE-U won’t hurt Wi-Fi signals (do we believe them?) while the other side (including Google & CableLabs) have tested the technology with the opposite result. And so it carries on.

Last week on Wi-Fi NOW TV, CEO of Bandwidth (Republic Wireless) and I joked that we should create a new wireless standard called WiFi-L. Wi-Fi in the licensed bands! And then let’s see how the carriers would react to that.

All joking aside: It’s a pretty serious issue. Whatever the test results say from either side, the devil is most certainly in the detail. Setting up the right ‘fair sharing’ mechanisms for spectrum are not easy because the algorithms for e.g. exponential backoff, listen-before-talk, etc. are complex and can be set with a slew of parameters. Can the LTE-U folks be trusted to share fairly? I’m not so sure. Sharing is really not a part of carrier DNA.

For all of us who use Wi-Fi all the time – billions of people around the globe and both traffic & devices continue to grow at double-digit rates, must faster than mobile – it’s hard to understand how regulators would accept any fresh risk to the health of Wi-Fi signals. To me, Wi-Fi is synonymous with Internet access. It’s that big. It’s that important.

The other side will argue that Wi-Fi itself interferes as much with Wi-Fi as LTE-U. That could be. By why do we need to introduce another technology in a band well served by Wi-Fi? Wi-Fi is an order of magnitude less costly that LTE and works at least as well if not better. LTE-U will only make unlicensed services more expensive. And that’s probably the one reason why – even if the LTE-U folks get their way – that LTE-U won’t ever happen at scale.

We’ll be battling head on during our big LTE-U vs. Wi-Fi debate at Wi-Fi NOW in Amsterdam – check our program here.

/Claus Hetting