The rate of use of the Internet has ballooned in the past years thanks to the prevalence of mobile devices lie smartphones. These phones in particular connect to licensed bands of the radio spectrum that envelopes our air and those bands are quickly getting congested. The solution proposed by carriers like Verizon and chip makers like Qualcomm is to utilize the unlicensed spectrum used by other wireless connections like Wi-Fi and garage door openers. But according to some tech companies like Google, Microsoft, and Comcast, such a solution would come at the expense of wrecking havock on Wi-Fi.
It’s a he/she said, he/she said kind of technology debate. On one side, you’ve got Verizon and a few other carriers, whose business depends on delivering network connection outside of Wi-Fi. Qualcomm is on this side too, since it is the one making the chip that in turn makes this new technology possible. That technology is being labeled as LTE-U, short for LTE Unlicensed. In theory, it will let LTE connections ride on the unlicensed spectrum used by Wi-Fi, which is a lot wider than those leased by carriers from the government.
In practice, however, it could be detrimental to the quality of Wi-Fi connections, depending on who you ask. Verizon and Qualcomm of course insist that their tests have proven that LTE-U can operate with Wi-Fi, with neither trying to strangle each other. Google et al., on the other hand, also have evidence that say otherwise. They claim that, in principle, Wi-Fi is “polite”, waiting to see if anyone is transmitting before it transmits is packets in order to avoid collisions and data loss. In contrast, LTE and cellular traffic relies on scheduling software. Putting those two systems on the same spectrum could aversely affect Wi-Fi, since it will be endlessly waiting for LTE to finish talking, so to speak.
The tech companies fighting against LTE-U are hardly selfless defenders of the welfare of Internet users. Just as carriers like Verizon depend on increasing their bandwidth to promote their business, companies like Google and Comcast are also pushing for their own Wi-Fi based services. LTE-U could practically make their offerings moot.
Those rallying against LTE-U are petitioning the FCC to put their foot down to delay the implementation of LTE-U. The IEEE, the standards body that also takes charge of the Wi-Fi standard, wants Qualcomm and carriers to submit the technology for review, which could take an additional year. LTE-U proponents naturally deplore any delay. For its part, the FCC is advising the tech companies to find a resolution themselves but will have to step in if they reach an impasse.