Year in Review: From 5G trials to IoT debates, 2016 delivered in wireless tech

Over the past year, the industry has grappled with LTE-U and its impact on Wi-Fi, speculated about the eventual winner of a FirstNet contract, and debated the pros and cons of cellular-based Internet of Things (IoT) technologies versus non-cellular. As 2016 comes to a close, here’s a look back at some of the hottest topics to hit the wireless tech industry during the past year.

5G tests and trials, along with a good dose of SDN/NFV

While the FCC stepped into bold new territory with its Spectrum Frontiers rulemaking on July 14 and opened up for study gobs of millimeter wave spectrum for 5G, operators big and small were busy conducting 5G tests and trials throughout the year. Samsung Electronics kicked it off at Mobile World Congress 2016 by touting the multi-gigabit-per-second speeds it was getting during trials with Verizon at Verizon’s Basking Ridge, New Jersey, headquarters, trials that included live streaming 360-degree virtual reality content.

While taking a decidedly less aggressive approach to 5G than Verizon, AT&T also conducted a number of 5G tests, including one with Ericsson that the companies said produced speeds up to 14 Gbps. By summer, Sprint too was conducting demos of live millimeter wave systems at 73 GHz and 15 GHz in Santa Clara, California, and Philadelphia. T-Mobile got in on the action with tests of its own, and CTO Neville Ray, predictably, blasted other carriers for what he described as boring use cases. Not to be left out, U.S. Cellular reported tests with Ericsson achieving peak speeds of 9 Gbps overall and 1.5 Gbps over a mile in 5G testing in Madison, Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, AT&T especially but also Verizon worked on converting their networks from hardware-driven systems to SDN and NFV, aiming to cash in on the cost efficiencies and more flexible architectures provided by software-driven systems. Sprint and T-Mobile were less enthusiastic about sharing their plans, but operators across the world are expected to increasingly adopt SDN and NFV on their way to 5G.

Cellular and unlicensed IoT technologies go to battle

While Verizon continued to ramp up its IoT strategy to make it more competitive with AT&T, the real battle wasn’t going on between those two wireless carriers so much as between those carriers and the unlicensed offerings from the likes of Sigfox, Senet and Ingenu.

For much of 2016, these startups used IoT networks running in licensed and unlicensed spectrum to create a time-to-market advantage against the likes of AT&T and Verizon, which continue to sell relatively expensive IoT services over their LTE networks.

But, to hear wireless operators tell it, that time-to-market advantage is over. By the end of the year, carriers like AT&T were saying there’s no reason to wait: LTE Cat M technologies are here today. Indeed, while Verizon didn’t disclose any markets where it’s up and running, it did say that it made good on its promise to make Cat M1 commercially available by the end of this year, with nationwide expansion to occur in 2017.

Spectrum sharing takes new turns with 3.5 GHz CBRS band emerging

The FCC set out to do something innovative when it created the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) in the 3.5 GHz band, and in April the commission established 3.5 GHz as the “innovation band.”

The commission basically opened up 100 megahertz of spectrum previously unavailable for commercial uses, which it added to existing commercial spectrum to make a 150 megahertz contiguous band. The CBRS Alliance was launched in August to promote LTE technology in the 3.5 GHz ecosystem, and by December, the Wireless Innovation Forum (WinnForum) announced the public availability of its signaling protocols and procedures related to the 3.5 GHz CBRS band—first-of-their-kind standards to address the new FCC rules for 3.5 GHz. Shortly after that, Federated Wireless and Alphabet’s Access team reported a major milestone in demonstrating interoperability between their Spectrum Access Systems, going a long way toward validating sharing in the 3.5 GHz band.

Not everyone agreed in full with how the 3.5 GHz band was set up, including the two Republican commissioners who are expected to remain when the new Trump administration convenes in January. Even though they voted for it in the end, both Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly called the 3.5 GHz proceeding an experiment and noted areas of disagreement, including, for O’Rielly, the short license terms for Priority Access Licensees (PALs)—wireless carriers too had argued for longer PAL terms. It remains to be seen if the FCC will revisit any of these topics under the new administration.

LTE-U/LAA threaten Wi-Fi, and Wi-Fi fights back

The Wi-Fi Alliance in September released its highly anticipated Wi-Fi/LTE-U coexistence test plan after months of debate over how LTE should be introduced in unlicensed spectrum. Proponents of LTE-U, including Verizon, T-Mobile US and Qualcomm, insisted that they would play nice with Wi-Fi, but leaders in the cable and Wi-Fi communities did not see it that way and feared that LTE would crowd out Wi-Fi.

The Wi-Fi Alliance said the test plan was the result of compromise among players from all sides, and therefore nobody was going to be happy with all of it. Indeed, in November the test plan continued to generate angst: That’s when Nokia registered serious concerns about its ability to complete tests of its LTE-U equipment and complained that the test plan submitted to the commission wasn’t a complete document. But the Wi-Fi Alliance countered that Nokia’s complaints were filed before discussions among all the parties were completed.

Thus, it’s clear that arguments over unlicensed spectrum between communities supporting LTE and Wi-Fi will continue into the New Year.

AT&T emerges as likely partner for FirstNet

After years in the making, FirstNet in January issued its Request for Proposals (RFP) for the deployment of a nationwide broadband network dedicated to public safety. In April, the organization extended the deadline for bidders to submit proposals to May 31, and by December, AT&T emerged as the likely standing contender after two other entities—Rivada Mercury and pvdWireless—revealed that they had been notified that they were no longer in the running. While some analysts had pegged Verizon to be the ultimate winner, the operator remained mostly mum on the whole idea.

Although there’s been no formal announcement from FirstNet about the winner, Rivada Mercury is protesting the situation, arguing that the Department of Interior’s evaluation was arbitrary and capricious. But if the legal issues get resolved, it’s possible that the contract could be awarded by the spring. If AT&T is the ultimate winner, it will represent a significant business for AT&T—AT&T will be able to use 20 megahertz of prime 700 MHz spectrum combined with the ability to sell excess network capacity when it’s not being used by public safety. No matter who wins, analysts expect FirstNet to be positive for the tower sector due to the need for additional new cell sites.

For its part, FirstNet said it continues to make progress on its goal of building a wireless network for public safety. The agency marked a milestone in November when it opened the FirstNet Innovation and Test Lab at its technical headquarters in Boulder, Colorado. The lab will serve as a “plug and play” environment where FirstNet and its future private industry partner will test public safety features, devices and apps before they are deployed on the nationwide network.