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Friday, June 12, 2015

Qualcomm's MuLTEfire is what LTE-U should have been, instead of LAA

Yesterday, Qualcomm rather quietly announced a project called MuLTEfire on its blog.

It describes it as "a new, LTE-based technology that solely operates in unlicensed spectrum, and doesn’t require an 'anchor' in licensed spectrum"

This is a very different proposition to the other type of LTE-U, called LAA (licence-assisted access), which requires a provider to "anchor" the service in a separate (licensed) band. That has proven very controversial in recent months, with fears that its coexistence with WiFi in the 5GHz band could prove damaging, with extra interference. There are claims and counterclaims there, with both technical and "moral" viewpoints.

But I've been critical of LAA for another reason - I think it is potentially anti-competitive, as it is only usable by operators that have (paid) spectrum for other LTE networks. It could be seen as a way of extending an oligopoly position into an adjacent marketplace, as inevitably its use in a band reduces theoretical capacity available to others, even if it behaves "politely".

My view of unlicenced-band cellular has been that it should be available to all to implement, in the same way that WiFi is. At least in concept, MuLTEfire is what I'd envisioned when I first thought about unlicenced 4G.  

(I'm not 100% certain, but I think I may have personally invented the concept of unlicenced-band LTE myself, as per this blog post from July 2008 . I also suggested SIM-free LTE a couple of months later) 

Fully-open unlicenced LTE has some rather interesting possibilities.  By decoupling LTE from the constraints of licenced spectrum - and, ideally, without a SIM card or with some sort of soft- or programmable SIM - then we could see a set of revolutionary new business models. For example, it would become possible for venues to offer "free 4G" to visitors, or for all sorts of novel "anti-roaming" propositions to be provided. We could also see true "private cellular" networks - which have already been proven in concept by the use of light-licensed GSM guard-bands and pico/femtocells in the UK and Netherlands.

Obviously, any company considering its deployment could equally-well use WiFi in the same places. But LTE-U in MuLTEfire might allow easier roaming, especially in devices which don't have SIM-based WiFi capabilities enabled.There are also all sorts of interesting options for hybrid MVNOs/MNOs, neutral-hosts for indoor coverage, and a bunch of other concepts I've got at the back of my mind.

In particular, given this is cellular technology, it is actually much more aligned with the notion of "seamless" connection than the WiFi is. I'm a deep skeptic of integration of WiFi with cellular, as it introduces too many compromises in terms of user choice and policy/preference conflicts.

Qualcomm's timing here is very interesting - the FCC has been asking for submissions about LTE-U / LAA, with the initial comments also due yesterday. And there's a big spectrum management event in Brussels next week - I'm presenting on Tuesday afternoon and will be mentioning LTE-U on a panel which also includes a Qualcomm speaker.

Now clearly, a lot depends on the details (eg IPR costs, whether the coexistence works as billed) and whether the project gets traction. But for a mobile-industry giant such as Qualcomm to even suggest a SIM-free variants of cellular is a major step forward, and one that I've been advocating for years.

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