If unlicensed Wi-Fi is like that cool local band that makes music they love, then using those frequencies for LTE may sound like a corporate sell out to create profitable teeny bop songs. Welp, there goes real music. Or does it?
LTE-U standards are rapidly being developed, and the increasing number of its proponents brings into question the relationship between Wi-Fi and cellular networks.
Let’s get up to speed: Wi-Fi. What is it really? Besides a totally made up name (keep that in your useless knowledge repertoire for trivia night), Wi-Fi operates on unlicensed spectrum, a range of frequencies that no one pays for but uses freely. As such, it fosters innovation and choice for consumers. It’s shared by a range of products and technologies including Bluetooth, baby monitors, cordless phones, and even garage door openers.
Conversely, cellular networks operate on frequencies within specific spectrums that are licensed by the US Government. This network capacity is starting to saturate. Why can’t we just use different spectrum frequencies? The short answer is, we can. But like the corporate buy out of your favorite local band, it might involve some Don Draper-esque convincing that our favorite songs won’t be teeny bopped.
The technology developed to allow cell networks to operate on unlicensed spectrum is called LTE-U (side note: LTE is actually a 4G technology. 4G LTE is part of 4G, and increases the network capacity and its speed using various radios and other equipment. It’s the faster, more powerful version). LTE-U is the use of LTE in the unlicensed spectrum. It would allow mobile operators to offload overwhelming data traffic onto unlicensed frequencies more efficiently, creating a more streamlined experience for customers.
LTE uses spectrum more efficiently than Wi-Fi, whose users face crowded airspace in some areas, the very “mobile mecca” areas where carriers want to deploy unlicensed LTE (convention centers, stadiums, offices, hotels, etc.). Currently, the 5GHz band (where Wi-Fi operates) contains more than 400MHz of available unlicensed spectrum; more than most mobile operators have in all of their bands combined.
Concerned about traffic jams, the FCC is increasingly becoming involved to ensure LTE-U doesn’t unfairly hog all the frequencies. And let’s be fair, it’s not like there’s some sinister carrier-backed plan to erase Wi-Fi. They depend on Wi-Fi for streamlined services as much as the consumer does. The problem with using unlicensed spectrum is that Wi-Fi (and those other technologies) may be forced to compete with cellular networks, and not in a financial sense (remember that the spectrum is free). Worldwide about half of internet traffic relies on Wi-Fi, and just 3% on cell networks. If carrier aggregation (which allows mobile operators to combine their licensed spectrum into a single data connection) swallows up unlicensed spectrum as well, what would that mean for Wi-Fi users?
Aside from LTE’s inherent incompatibility with unlicensed frequencies, the technology lacks crucial features to prevent one network from drowning out another. But the demand for bands is causing desperation, with some carriers even turning to technologies that will move subscribers between Wi-Fi and the cell network.
How likely is it that LTE will compete with Wi-Fi? It’s too soon to tell. Although some do predict LTE could be more efficient than WI-Fi if allowed to spread. But hey, if you can’t beat ’em… devise a way to profit from it. Wi-Fi is still the network we rely on to get connected. But at some point in the future, LTE-U will be the network we rely on to connect.