Verizon, T-Mobile gear up to launch LTE-U after FCC authorizes devices in 5 GHz band

Verizon and T-Mobile are both excited about offering LTE-U technology this spring now that the FCC announced it has authorized the first LTE-U devices in the 5 GHz band.  

Verizon and T-Mobile were early supporters of LTE-U, which ended up going through a long, often contentious battle with the Wi-Fi and cable industries that saw it as a threat in unlicensed spectrum. LTE-U proponents often argue that the introduction of LTE-U actually makes a better neighbor to Wi-Fi than Wi-Fi itself and that no harm would come.

After many meetings with LTE-U and Wi-Fi stakeholders over the course of several months, the Wi-Fi Alliance released a test plan last fall that it said resulted from compromises on all sides.

A Verizon spokesman said today that the company plans to have an initial rollout of devices and equipment ready for the marketplace this spring. In a statement, the company said it’s excited about the FCC’s equipment authorization. “As demand for bandwidth continues to skyrocket, LTE-U will enable our customers to benefit from more data at faster speeds where they live work, live, and play,” the company said. “This is an example of yet another great innovation using unlicensed spectrum.”

T-Mobile also plans to launch LTE-U technology in its LTE network starting this spring using equipment from Ericsson and Nokia, giving customers the ability to tap into 20 MHz of underutilized unlicensed spectrum on the 5 GHz band and use it for additional LTE capacity. “T-Mobile already has more capacity per subscriber than AT&T and Verizon, and the addition of LTE-U will only extend that lead and further improve the Un-carrier’s blazing-fast speeds,” the company said in a press release. “And, LTE-U will make it possible for T-Mobile to bring its forthcoming Gigabit LTE to more places across the country.”

"T-Mobile’s network is second to none, with more capacity per customer than the Duopoly, … and LTE-U will only accelerate our lead,” said Neville Ray, CTO at T-Mobile, in the release. “T-Mobile’s built a track record of introducing new innovations first, including deploying more LTE Advanced technologies than anyone in the U.S. All that innovation means one thing—a fantastic customer experience. That’s why T-Mobile customers are the most satisfied in U.S. wireless!”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the authorization of the first-ever LTE-U devices in the 5 GHz band is a big win for wireless consumers. “LTE-U allows wireless providers to deliver mobile data traffic using unlicensed spectrum while sharing the road, so to speak, with Wi-Fi,” he said in a prepared statement. “The excellent staff of the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology has certified that the LTE-U devices being approved today are in compliance with FCC rules. And voluntary industry testing has demonstrated that both these devices and Wi-Fi operations can co-exist in the 5 GHz band. This heralds a technical breakthrough in the many shared uses of this spectrum.”

“I remain committed to ensuring a competitive and vibrant unlicensed ecosystem that fosters innovation and promotes the efficient use of spectrum,” he said. “Today’s announcement, enabled by cooperation among private actors and collaboration with the public sector, reflects that commitment.”

In his prepared remarks, Julius Knapp, chief engineer in the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology, acknowledged that the circumstances in this case were unique. “The LTE-U devices that were certified today have been tested to show they meet all of the FCC’s rules,” he said. “We understand that the LTE-U devices were evaluated successfully under the co-existence test plan. However, this is not an FCC requirement and similar to conformity testing for private sector standards the co-existence test results are not included in the FCC’s equipment certification records.”

He added: “We remain committed to ensuring that all who seek to introduce new products and technologies may do so provided their devices comply with the FCC rules.”

Qualcomm led the charge for LTE-U and at one point blasted the test plan. But Dean Brenner, senior vice president of government affairs at Qualcomm, said the company was extremely pleased with the FCC’s actions, which “represent a major step forward for American consumers, demonstrate strong US leadership in mobile broadband, and recognize years of research and development and inventions” by Qualcomm and its partners. 

“Today’s FCC actions substantiate Qualcomm’s deep technical collaboration with stakeholders from every facet of the wireless industry, including the cellular and Wi-Fi communities, in developing LTE Unlicensed to ensure that unlicensed spectrum remains open for permission-less innovation to enable faster, better mobile broadband and that new technologies will demonstrably co-exist successfully with incumbents,” he said.

Verizon formed the LTE-U Forum in 2014 with Alcatel-Lucent (now part of Nokia), Ericsson, Qualcomm Technologies and Samsung to develop specifications for implementing LTE-U to coexist with Wi-Fi and other technologies. Operators had hoped to introduce LTE-U at least by 2016, but that didn’t happen.

RELATED: Verizon to test pre-commercial LTE-U small cells in unlicensed 5 GHz band

In December, Verizon was granted Special Temporary Authority by the FCC to work with partner companies to develop equipment that would use multiple technologies, including 802.11 and LTE, in unlicensed 5 GHz frequency bands. That grant expires April 16, 2017.

Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) President and CEO Steven K. Berry said the FCC’s announcement is an important step forward to ensuring both industry players and consumers can reap the benefits of LTE-U technology and maximize spectrum utilization and he’s pleased to see CCA members are moving forward with LTE-U this spring. 

“Approval of these devices forwards FCC policy to promote innovative uses of unlicensed spectrum, as additional testing with the Wi-Fi Alliance has shown that LTE-U can benefit consumers while improving the experience of other unlicensed spectrum uses, like Wi-Fi,” Berry said. “While CCA continues to believe that permission-less innovation in the new tech space should be the norm, I thank the FCC for moving forward with approval, and look forward to continued work with the FCC to adopt policies that maximize spectrum use for competitive carriers.”

This story was updated Feb. 23 with additional commentary.